Last Thursday, just after dusk, Café Brasil’s back patio filled with food obsessives for a special screening of City of Gold, the freshly pressed documentary film detailing Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Gold’s decades-long career as a journalist and restaurant critic, most recently for The Los Angeles Times. Or, as he puts it, as a professional eater of tacos.
Why, you might wonder, should Houstonians care about some West Coast food writer? To begin, just as peers praise Gold’s writing for its accessibility for those with a less encyclopedic knowledge of food (in other words, most of us), City of Gold manages to reveal universal insights about food and traditions that can be appreciated without an insider’s understanding of L.A.
Through conversations with notable colleagues, chefs and Gold himself, the film examines how our long-haired, suspenders-clad protagonist turned the criticism game on its head. Back in the '80s when the only restaurants being reviewed were fine dining establishments—and most of those French, Gold focused his writing on personal discoveries of hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop eateries tucked in unexplored neighborhoods of Los Angeles. By doing so, he revolutionized the way these cuisines and cultural centers are considered and valued by the broader community.
As was pointed out during Thursday’s panel discussion following the film, there are myriad parallels between the City of Angels and our fair Bayou City. Tacos, for one, and the apparently collective conundrum of why a taco always tastes better from a truck. Gold, of course, has a theory.
Through understated yet visually stunning storytelling, writer-director Laura Gabbert lets the imagery and dialogue stand on their own. Viewers ride shotgun as Gold drives to seedy, far-flung strip malls, gesturing and offering recommendations for restaurants that pass in the window. "People not from LA sometimes don’t understand the beauty found inside a mini-mall," he laments. Not so, I would argue, for well-fed Houstonians.
The writer speaks warmly of “Los Angeles’ back porch,” the nickname he bestowed upon Pico Boulevard, a long, bustling street full of eclectic cuisines where he began eating as a proofreader for LA Weekly. From vinyl booths of nondescript Salvadoran, Southern Thai and Szechuan dining rooms, Gold orders house specialties. Climbing from his beater truck, he greets the owner of a hot dog cart and catches up on news of the brick-and-mortar’s imminent reopen. Ducking under the awning of Mariscos Jalisco food truck, he inquires about the special tostada they mentioned earlier that day on Twitter.
What is clear in watching Gold engage with restaurant staff, editors and dining companions is the compassion he has for the people and traditions behind the food. He seems to understand that, similar to those in Houston and elsewhere, most local restaurants in self-contained communities aren’t doing it for the glory or the food critic or the tourist, but to feed a need in that community. “You’re rooting for them,” says Gold. And in that sense, he reflects, “It’s less of a melting pot and more of a great, glittering mosaic.”
Taking in scenes from the film, it’s hard not to recall local culinary experiences along Bellaire Boulevard in Houston’s Chinatown, or in Little India or Spring Branch or along Airline Drive. It’s easy to understand what Gold appreciates about these small family restaurants and what they represent. After all, Houstonians love to boast of the diversity and varied cultural diaspora that make living here so interesting. To experience stories from another coast that mirror our own is both refreshing and unifying. And afterward, like me, you’ll probably look up flights to LAX…and crave a taco.
Convinced? You’re in luck: IFC Films opens “City of Gold” in Houston this Friday at Sundance Cinemas downtown. For tickets, call (713) 223-3456 or visit www.sundancecinemas.com.