Halfway through Laura Gabbert's documentary City of Gold, a salute to Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize–winning food critic's brother Mark reveals a dark family secret: Gold grew up devouring iceberg lettuce and orange Jell-O.
Every day, we eat. It's a must. And those meals tell a story: the peanut sauce Grandma invented, the Korean tacos that signify L.A.'s mash-up culture and even that Jell-O, a shorthand for a childhood in South Central, where Gold's father, a probation officer who dreamed of being an English professor, cared more about filling his sons' heads with high culture than he did about filling their bellies with fancy food.
He fed them right. Gold doesn't just judge a black mole -- he compares it to sculpture. In his reviews, the merits of a bowl of pho spill over into opinions on punk rock, gentrification and the American Dream. Food is vital, interpretative and alive. Every small restaurant represents someone's homeland and hope. As Gold tells the camera, "Taco should be a verb."
Fittingly, Gabbert's doc spends much of its running time in the passenger seat of Gold's green pickup truck watching Los Angeles whiz by. Gold takes the filmmakers on a greatest-hits tour of the restaurants he promoted into phenomenons: Jitlada, Guelaguetza, Meals by Genet, Mariscos Jalisco. Their owners tell her how Gold's reviews changed their lives. And we see how, in writing about food, Gold is writing the history of immigration in Los Angeles, from the Salvadorans selling pupusas on Pico Boulevard to the dignified tea-drinking men re-creating Tehran in Westwood.