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How Jonathan Gold Redefined the Borders of Food Culture

Chilaquiles at Las Casita Mexicana | Javier Cabral
Chilaquiles at Las Casita Mexicana | Javier Cabral

When I moved to Los Angeles in 2007 to begin a new teaching job at USC, Jonathan Gold’s words were my compass to discovering this vast metropolis’ hidden treasures.

As I ventured to different parts of the city, Gold’s reviews opened my eyes to what he called this “glorious mosaic.” After I read an article by Gold in which he stated that “the Best Peruvian ceviche might be in a warehouse south of downtown,” my husband and I headed to Mo-Chica, a little stall in the Mercado de la Paloma near USC. We sampled what Gold called ceviche that spoke “as much of the mountains as of the sea.” Next, desperate for good chilaquiles­ (a Mexican dish of fried tortilla pieces simmered with salsa or mole and typically topped with eggs), we drove across the city to La Casita Mexicana in Bell after reading Gold’s description:

A few years later, I developed a class on Latino food culture in Los Angeles as a way for USC undergraduates to learn about Latino culture and use their Spanish in a real-world setting. The idea for this class was sparked, in large part, by a conversation I heard between Jonathan Gold and Evan Kleinman on “Good Food.” A caller asked Gold if he would consider Tito’s Tacos to be “authentic Mexican food.” Tito’s Tacos, as many Westside Angelinos know, is an old-schooI Mexican-American taco shop of the variety that popped up around the city in the 1960s. It serves hard shell tacos with ground beef, grated cheddar cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce and salsa.

Gold’s answer stunned me at the time. He said he did not consider it to be inauthentic. Instead, he said, Tito’s Tacos is an authentic representation of what Mexican food has evolved into over centuries of a Mexican presence in Southern California. In fact, Gold went as far as to say that “you can consider Southern California to be a region of Mexico unto itself.” His answer revolutionized the way I understood food and borders and shaped the way I thought about Southern California as having its own unique, legitimate representation of Mexican cuisine, one just as authentic as Oaxaca or Michoacán. 

He certainly had a point. After all, contemporary Los Angeles is only 200 miles from the border with Mexico and has the second largest population of Mexicans outside of Mexico City. It also has one of the most diverse representations of Latino gastronomy in the United States, featuring the cuisine of nearly every region of Mexico, countries such as Peru, Argentina, Guatemala and El Salvador, not to mention an incredible variety of Asian-Latin fusion cuisine. 

When I began teaching my course on Latino food culture in L.A. in 2011, I wrote to Gold and asked him if he would come speak to my class. Even though he did not know me, he did so without hesitation. He told me he had a deadline the next day, but “no problem." My first encounter with him was when he showed up in his beat-up truck to the USC parking garage and charmed my students with his views on authenticity, his confrontation with Chef Rick Bayless and his descriptions of L.A.’s great street food culture.

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Later, as I wrote my book Food, Health and Culture in Latino Los Angeles, quotes from Gold’s reviews read like beautiful poetry, not the words of a food critic, but of a culinary Petrarch whose words spotlighted chefs and truck owners who were otherwise largely ignored by the media since they didn’t have hip restaurants in trendy parts of the city. Rather, they were the ones in Bell Gardens or Boyle Heights. They were the ones he put on the foody map…literally.

After Gold reviewed Oaxacan chef Rocio Camacho’s Moles La Tía in 2009, she opened her doors to find a long line of gabachos out the door. Gold’s readers had come in search of the 30 different moles on her menu and to sample the cuisine of the woman he had aptly christened “La Diosa de los Moles,” the Mole Goddess.

Rocío’s Mexican Kitchen's Mole Negro Oaxaqueno. | Staci Valentine
Rocío’s Mexican Kitchen's Mole Negro Oaxaqueno. | Staci Valentine

Gold’s description of Camacho’s mole negro reads like a Neruda ode. He described it as

How could you NOT get into your car and drive across the city as soon as possible after reading a description that intense?

 

Perhaps my favorite Jonathan Gold quote is one about Mariscos Jalisco, a lonchera specializing in crunch shrimp tacos that has been parking on Olympic Boulevard in Boyle Heights for over seventeen years. I have been taking students and visitors there for many years and know how much attention Gold’s reviews have brought owner Raul Ortega. Gold famously said,

Bringing trucks and restaurants such as Mariscos Jalisco, the Goddess of Mole’s restaurants, and La Casita Mexicana to the attention of a wider public was perhaps Gold’s greatest gift to so many Angelinos. He showed us that food is about so much more than what meets the palate; it is a way to bridge cultural and socioeconomic divides and to truly appreciate the city he described as a “glorious mosaic.”

 

Top Image: Jonathan Gold on SiriusXM |  Charley Gallay / Stringer

 

 

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