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Korea Blog: What Jonathan Gold Understood About Korea

Even after I left Los Angeles for Seoul, I kept reading Jonathan Gold. Few who appreciate Los Angeles, no matter where in the world they live, could ignore what his restaurant reviews said about the city as a whole. On my last visit there earlier this year, I got into a conversation with a couple of friends about whether his writing was still relevant. One argued that, like the professional generalists of so many cultural realms, Gold had been superseded by thousands of amateur or quasi-professional specialists: where once we needed one man to tell us where to find the best Japanese ramen, Mexican chapulínes, or Ethiopian kifo, we now consult a numberless force of ramen bloggers, chapulín bloggers, kitfo bloggers. But Gold’s unexpected death three weeks ago and the flood of tributes since since issued forth have shown how essential a role he played in the life of the city — and the unlikelihood of anyone else completely filling it.

I became a Gold fan as soon as I arrived in Los Angeles, and specifically in Koreatown. Though many new Angelenos use it as a cheap point of entry (or at least they did when it was cheap), I actively chose Koreatown, refusing to live in any other part of the city. Already possessed of a taste for Korean food and several years’ self-study of the Korean language, I felt ready for a neighborhood that was, in Gold’s words, “functionally a distant district of Seoul — in capital as well as in culture, in both commerce and cuisine.” As his reviews of its restaurants suggest (“When I first started going to Kobawoo House back in the first Bush administration,” one begins), Gold’s history with Koreatown went uncommonly deep. When he lived there in the early 1990s, his neighbors “were mostly elderly white people who had lived in the neighborhood since the ’30s, when the old ballroom around the corner hosted big bands, when a romantic night out in the neighborhood might have involved a show at the Cocoanut Grove, big steaks at the Brown Derby, maybe cocktails afterward at the Town House or the Cove.”

Not long after, “the Koreans started moving in: a few families at a time at first, then into most of the block.” He soon found that “the fire escapes now were blanketed with cabbage leaves in the fall, clotheslines (like mine) bristled with drying fish, the silence of dawn punctuated with the steady, rhythmic pounding of garlic in wooden mortars.” But he was ready: “I had eaten Korean food, of course. My father, a great fan of buffets, particularly admired the spread at VIP, the first grand restaurant in Koreatown, and I had been taken to the Pear Garden, up on La Cienega’s restaurant row, for bulgogi since I was a child.” Not that those experiences quite prepared him to expect the “nightlife zone almost as dense as Tokyo’s Roppongi District, a 24-hour neighborhood of neon and giant video screens, alive with the squeals of tweaked-out Honda tuners and bone-stock AMG sedans, the smell of grilling meat, and the bleary eyes of party people who have stayed up till dawn” that Koreatown had become by the mid-2000s.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.