Jonathan Gold: Critic Uncovered

Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold on his favorite Valley haunts (including some you’ve probably never heard of) and what the burgeoning dining scene here still sorely needs.

When it came to picking a person to interview for this issue’s Q&A, after reading “Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants,” we knew we’d found our man. As the first food critic to win the Pulitzer Prize, Jonathan is known for his adventurous palate. Editor Linda Grasso’s questions for him begin with one she describes as “a bit indignant.”

We were surprised that only three Valley restaurants made your “101” list: Girasol, Mantee Café and Rocio’s Mole de los Dioses. 

I get complaints from all over about underrepresentation, and I never know quite what to say. Fab, the splendid hot dog specialist, often makes it onto my list, as does Krua Thai. Asanebo used to. You could certainly make a case for Hummus Bar in Tarzana. But I resist the idea that I should, say, include the Studio City ramen bar Jinya, which is wonderful, instead of the, frankly, better Westside ramen bar Tsujita, just for the sake of geographical diversity.

What are we lacking here that, according to your list, you find all over LA—including in rather off-the-beaten-path places like Bell, Rosemead and San Gabriel?

The SFV has always resisted restaurants even a little off-center, which is why traditional bistros have always thrived and places like Marche barely lasted a year. Sherman Way in North Hollywood is one of my favorite food streets, but nothing quite approaches the level of the 101 (restaurant list). 

The “101” list aside, where do you go in the Valley?

I love DuPar’s for breakfast. Lenchita’s in Pacoima has fantastic, old-school Mexican-American food. The expensive, distinctly odd sushi at Go’s Mart has a hold on me, truffle oil notwithstanding. 

LA’s strength as a restaurant city lies in its extraordinary diversity.”

Best dish ever eaten?

The lièvre à la royale served as a special a decade ago at Pierre Gagnaire in Paris: hare seethed for many hours in a bath of Burgundy wine and its own blood, which is then reduced and thickened with pureed foie gras. 

You work incognito. Any disguises?

Disguises? No. Although I have often thought I would look fetching dressed as a young Marie Dressler. I do make reservations under fake names, change phone numbers often and tend to show up a few minutes after the rest of the party has been seated. 

These days great food comes from anywhere and can be made from any ingredient. Thoughts?

Nobody admires a great French kitchen more than I do, but LA’s strength as a restaurant city lies in its extraordinary diversity. And a lot of the most interesting cooking here at the moment is being done by young Asian-American chefs trying to reconcile the flavors of their childhoods with the strictures of their classical training. In a city where a former Alain Ducasse disciple serves his farm-driven cuisine with a taco truck and every young chef in town seems driven to master pho, there is no longer a meaningful distinction between “high’’ cuisine and “low.”

I understand you have something of a history with the Valley.

 I spent a lot of time visiting aunts there, and I was the first Valley restaurant critic for the LA Times. When I was a kid, I loved Flooky’s, Beeps, Cupid’s and the Weiner Factory. As a young critic I was ecstatic about the old Café San Juan in Pacoima, La Serre, Monkgorn Kawasai’s Isaan dishes at Rama Thai, and Lalo and Brothers, where I first tasted foie gras. 

What’s the weirdest thing you ever ate that tasted good?

No traditional food is weird in context. Wonder Bread is as bizarre in its way as mopane worms. But the grasshopper soup at Rocio’s is both delicious and odd.

Do you think tapas are worth the $10 to $18 cost? Sometimes I eat five, and I’m still hungry … but my wallet is already tired.

On the upper end, small share plates seem to be giving way to tasting menus, but in the middle they seem here to stay. I suspect a generation weaned on Twitter, Tinder and Snapchat will always find it difficult to commit to an entrée. 

“Foraging” got a lot of press for a while. Next big trend in food?  

We are nowhere done with foraging. You will be seeing weeds on your plate for years to come.

Thoughts about Jon Favreau’s Chef?

I didn’t exactly consult on the movie, but I did spend an afternoon talking to Jon Favreau about it when he was developing it. I thought he captured the rhythm of restaurant cooking better than has ever been captured in a movie.

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