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Jonathan Gold: Counter Intelligence

Here we have a sheaf of dozen-year-old restaurant reviews. Yet here we also have what the New Yorker calls “one of the great contemporary books about Los Angeles.” Sure, the magazine distances itself from that accolade, attributing it to a nebulous group of “people,” but it does so in a profile of Jonathan Gold that reveals why you’d want to read his thoughts on dishes eaten during (and well before) the Clinton administration. Such is Gold’s presence in the zeitgeist of American urban journalism that, moving to Los Angeles, I felt no immediate need for another Baedeker.

Partisans of other metropolises, learning that one of Los Angeles’ best-regarded living writers cranks out restaurant reviews for a free weekly paper, might write the city off then and there. But somehow, Gold’s own background stops them from writing him off. The New Yorker profile touches on his past as an experimental musician, his early notions about joining the Foreign Service, his unrepentant maintenance of an appetite straight out of the decline of Rome, and the almost active lack of ambition that characterized several of his decades before winning a Pulizter. The article mentions, with surprising unsmugness, Gold’s late-2000s move to New york to write for Gourmet, but then, a few years later, he made his most shocking choice to non-Angelenos yet: returning to Los Angeles.

Gourmet went under, true, but even I, still new to the city, immediately grasp why Gold felt his homeland beckoning for further eating. From where I stand — specifically, the line between the Korean part of Koreatown and the Central American part of Koreatown — Los Angeles looks to me like a loose confederation of immigrant communities, with culinary offerings to match. Gold puts it to the New Yorker with characteristic succinctness: “The difference is that in New York they’re cooking for us. Here they’re cooking for themselves.” This holds true for most forms of human intercourse that go on here; to understand Los Angeles’ restaurants is to understand all its other cultural institutions as well.

Unlike those who practice the more rarefied yet more standard forms of food criticism, Gold also understands that eating cannot, or at least should not, be approached in a cultural vacuum. He unhesitatingly pulls in references to, comparisons with, and terms of the full variety his artistic experience, whenever it seems necessary. “The Germans contributed the symphony,” he writes in one of the many restaurant reviews Counter Intelligence comprises. “The French, symbolist poetry; the Irish, William Butler Yeats. The Dutch chimed in with Mannerist painting; the Nigerians with the great sculptures of Benin. And the Belgians? French fries… French fries and a funny kind of beer that tastes like cherries.”

Counter Intelligence goes on to see Gold eat “a dish that suggests more subtleties of green than a Jennifer Bartlett painting.” He describes “a Louis L’Amour scene transplanted to a Little Tokyo mini-mall.” He tastes a house hot sauce that “puts a Carville-quality spin” on a dish. He knows that, “in good French toast, milk and egg invade a slice of bread the way the creatures in I Married a Monster from Outer Space took over police officers.” He frequents an Ethiopian joint with “four sharply dressed men clustered around the turntables arguing whether next to play Lakeside or Cameo.” (Sounds like my kind of place — and indeed, I go with some frequency.) He figures that “if The Honeymooners were set in Osaka instead of Brooklyn, Ralph would eat a lot of curry.” He admits that “like a bad Elmore Leonard novel, a bad scallion pancake, even the doughy ones they sell in the frozen-food aisles of Chinese supermarkets, which you heat in your toaster like a Pop-Tart, is still pretty hard to resist.”

But again, beyond the (considerable) raw entertainment value of such critical performance, why read a compilation of restaurant reviews from 2000? Surely even the most relevant of Gold’s assessments have gone cold by now, and his archive of opinions on L.A. Weekly‘s web site gets updated practically in real time. But as a perhaps too-avid reader of criticism in all its breeds, though, allow me to submit that timeliness is just what we don’t need more of. If I read a review hailing from, say, the theater pages, let me read the one that hails from the theater pages of years, decades, centuries ago,  one that describes a performance fast fading from or completely out of living memory yet somehow retains its intellectual impact. If I read a review of a meal — the one form even more ephemeral than theater — let me read a review of a meal from an eatery shuttered years ago, its small but once-devoted clientele long dispersed. But let it be a review I read over and over again, vainly attempt to explain diagram the workings of the idiosyncratic mind behind it.

As it happens, most of the eateries Gold writes up in Counter Intelligence remain open for business. I know; I kept my iPhone beside the book at all times just to check. In the same way that an old, foreign film’s continued presence in the public consciousness signals something enduring enough at its core to blow through walls erected by age and distance, a restaurant that already boasted a strong track record in the previous century which I can still visit today is a restaurant I want to visit today. But under Gold’s mandate, “restaurant” isn’t always the right word; often, he saves his most probing, far-reaching, and celebratory investigations for stands, shacks, and, yes, counters — holes in the wall, sometimes literally.

This gets at what we can now see as Gold’s chief critical strength: the man knows how to use a filter. The New Yorker describes one example of the only-in-Los-Angeles phenomenon he calls a “triple carom”: “the Cajun food restaurant that caters to Chinese customers and is run by Vietnamese from Texas.” Seek out such an unlikely combination and you’re halfway there. But does it demand that you haul your ass out to a distant suburb filled with oil derricks and abandoned aerospace complexes? Does it do business out of a shambolic corner strip mall? Does its window proudly display a grade of “C” from the Los Angeles Board of Health? Has it nevertheless filled to bursting for lunch every single day since 1982? If yes to all, then, by Gold’s rubric, you’re at least three-quarters of the way there.

I borrowed my copy of Counter Intelligence from the Los Angeles Central Library downtown. There they shelve it not with the food books, but, correctly, in a stretch of stacks on the very bottom floor given over to Los Angeles history, culture, and geography. I have already spent good times getting lost in this section, and I plan to spend more. The book I checked out, dog-eared and pencil-marked with over a decade of use, contained the following underlinings and scribblings, which reveal “the Real Los Angeles” of its subtitle just as much as its main text does:



homemade lemon agua fresca

fresh, heavy cream

too expensive

banh mi shop

sugar-cane juice

green-papaya salad

less than $2

iced coffee is

steamed-vegetable salad gado-gado is garnished with fried tofu, tempeh fritters, and half a dozen shrimp chips — silly-looking things that jut from the top of the salad like varicolored jibs

exotic sweet

malted glasses

brown-sugar drink es cendol


tom kha kai

fresh pasta



best vegetarian plates

called pastis

stand in line to order

fried plantain

Cafe Brasil lunch is generally an uncomplicated


Mexican cactus pizza

foie gras calzone

steamed in banana leaves

yogurt drink, dough

Buenos Aires-style pasta

Argentine cooking is probably the most popular new cuisine in Los Angeles since Thai food


a dense, hard-grilled brioche

onion, squeaky panela cheese

Sri Lankan iced coffee

White Russians you

banana smoothies seem to be — but aren’t — flavored with a shot of dark rum


entree at Coley’s Kitchen: a subtly sweet mound of rice cooked with red beans; a small heap of steamed cabbage; a fried slice of plantain; an egg-size capsule of festival bread that will remind you of a buttermilk doughnut. Before this massive plate of food arrives, there might be a cup of thick, curried chicken soup, or spicy cow’s-foot soup — or, on Mondays, incredible, intricately spiced red-bean soup, which


tall glass of the restaurants

Caribbean vegetable akee looks

scrambled eggs

Guelaguetza in Koreatown

cornmeal platforms

mole negro

to include half a dozen small loaves of buttered French bread instead

oyster loaf


Ten dollars’ worth of shrimp dumplings and egg rolls

“Pregnant Burritos”

in Nose Knows

inera bread

Eritrean vegetable combination plate

best fried-green plantains I’ve had

baba ghanoush

Peru’s central Andean highlands

sour cream

turnovers stuffed with tart spinach

Matsuhisa’s prices are high

proper papaya salad

unripe fruit shredded


pupusas, hand-patted

vegetable loroco

samarkand is the sort of cold sauteed eggplant

plov, the godfather of all rice pilafs

pineapple rice

3:00 A.M.


cabbage kimchi

a sweet squash



bananas and cinnamon

bananas and cheese

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