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 One argued that, like the professional generalists of so many cultural realms, Gold had been superseded by thousands of amateur or quasi-professional specialists: where once we needed one man to tell us where to find the best Japanese ramen, Mexican chapulínes,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.

“I’m convinced Koreatown was his favorite L.A. neighborhood,” writes Taste‘s Matt Robard in his own remembrance of Gold. Gold’s 2004 roundup of its top 40 restaurants, his 2012 rundown of “60 Korean dishes every Angeleno should know,” and the rest of his writing on Koreatown, voluminous even by his prolific standard, supports that conviction. “The thing is, the restaurants here are as good as the restaurants in Seoul,” Robard remembers Gold telling him, adding that “he conceded that if you took the top 50 restaurants in both cities, the top 10 would go to Seoul, but insists that numbers 11 through 50 would be in America.” Gold would know, though much of the writing about him makes a point of his lack of interest in international travel, a seeming paradox in light of his endlessly expansive taste for what he called the “traditional” cuisines of the world and his unsurpassed ability to culturally situate them in writing.

“For most of his life, Gold rarely left Los Angeles, let alone the United States (summers in Italy aside),” writes the New Yorker‘s Dana Goodyear, who profiled him in 2009. “He learned the world by reading and eating in his home town.” But he did make it to Korea at least once, nearly a decade ago — long before I’d ever set foot here — in company that included a deputy LAPD chief, officials from the Los Angeles mayor’s office, a Garden Grove city planner, and San Francisco chef Russell Moore. “For years, I had contemplated what my first dinner in Seoul might be like,” he wrote in a travel diary for the LA Weekly, “whether I’d splash out on a meal of barbecue or find the bindaeduk that would put all other mung-bean pancakes to shame, discover a radically new radish kimchi or steel myself to try bosintang, the famous dog-meat soup whose heating qualities are oddly prescribed for the hottest day of summer.”

In Korea Gold wrote about Seoul’s food alleys, “lit Vegas-bright with the signs of a hundred tiny restaurants” and quite distracting for those “easily diverted by roiling eel tanks or wisps of blue smoke rising from chunks of grilling meat.” There he “stumbled into every tourist’s nightmare: You go out for some noodles, and you end up with the back end of an abattoir. I finished every drop.” That characteristic reversal no doubt convinced a few readers to catch a flight and follow in his footsteps. So, surely, did his experiences consuming genuine Korean raw whale (“leaner than beef, with a rich, mineral taste and a haunting, almost waxy aftertaste that I can’t quite place”) and sannakji, almost-live octopus. “I’d had sannakji in L.A.’s Koreatown, of course,” he wrote. “The lengths of chopped tentacle, which are not technically alive but still have a functioning nervous system, were motile, barely, but hardly twitched when you dipped them into sesame oil and popped them into your mouth.”

Gold also made it to Noryangjin fish market, “one of the greatest food spectacles on Earth,” and the true belly of the beast, Seoul’s expat district of Itaewon. A friend’s request to “find out if there is a Losangelestown in Korea” sent Gold out to that “genuine Americatown, a stretch of cover-band bars and burger joints and franchised American fast food” next to the U.S. Army Base, almost “a scrap of the South Bay transplanted to Seoul.” (I was as hell-bent on not living in Itaewon as I had been on living in Koreatown.) Upon sight of that neighborhood’s branch of Outback Steakhouse, Gold started to wonder “whether I have a South Korean counterpart who even now is worrying about the authenticity of the Bloomin’ Onion.” In fact, due to this country’s harsh defamation laws — which punish any actions that have plausibly harmed a business, including the publication of a negative review — Gold probably didn’t have a South Korean counterpart at all.

Not that he wrote many negative reviews, preferring instead to try every Los Angeles restaurant offering a certain cuisine and then recommend the best of the bunch. Hence the shockwave that went through the Los Angeles food world upon the publication, four months ago, of his mixed assessment of David Chang’s Majordomo in Chinatown. Gold and Chang’s relationship, already soured when the latter shut down food magazine Lucky Peach last year, never recovered, but before that they’d never hesitated to praise one another on the record. “I don’t know any Korean that knows more about Korean food than Jonathan Gold,” says the Korean-American Chang in Laura Gabbert’s 2015 documentary City of Gold. Even if I spend the rest of my in Korea, Gold — a lifelong monoglot who, though he once planned to join the Foreign Service, never lived abroad — surely knew more about Korean food than I ever will. But he himself was more circumspect: “The more I learn about Korean cooking in Los Angeles,” he once wrote, “the less I feel I know.”

That kind of intellectual humility, which pushed him to keep learning and tasting, tasting and learning, did much to earn Gold the respect he enjoyed (not to mention the Pulitzer Prize). Some who have paid tribute to him frame that quality in thoroughly modern terms: the New Yorker‘s Molly Lambert, for instance, praises his “healthy self-awareness about being a white person coming into P.O.C. spaces” (a phrasing that brings to mind Gold’s description of a trendy downtown restaurant: if it “were any more of the moment, it would be a Pinterest page devoted to Tumblrs of itself”). I would credit him with more timeless virtues, virtues for which my appreciation has only grown the longer I live in what he called “one of the most fascinating food countries in the world, with regional dishes that seem to change from block to block, a mind-wrenching array of fermentations, and spicy foods hardwired to jolt the pleasure center of your brain.”

Those words remind me of something the also-late Anthony Bourdain, another dedicated eater and appreciator of Korea, might have said. “He interrogated me about an L.A. Times review I’d written of Oki Dog,” Gold remembered in the obituary of Bourdain he wrote this past June, “and why I was sending him to an iffy Los Angeles neighborhood to eat pastrami burritos and whether the hot dog wrapped into a tortilla with fried cabbage said more about L.A.’s changing demographics or about my dubious taste.” Gold didn’t record Bourdain’s reaction to that canonical item of Los Angeles junk food, but he did write that he “cannot imagine how the food world is going to cope with this gaping Bourdain-shaped hole.” Now it’s left to a great many enthusiasts of food writing, Los Angeles writing, and even the writing of place in general to wonder how to cope with this gaping Gold-shaped hole.

Anyone Gold has inspired to write seriously about food or Los Angeles (I count myself more in the latter group than the former, and I continue to write about the city even here in Korea, even when ostensibly writing about Korea) knows both that they can’t fill that hole themselves, and that they have no choice but to try. Gold’s death, like Bourdain’s, will for many prompt a reflection already familiarized by all the active cultural figures lost in recent years: not only are our idols departing the scene, they’re doing it much sooner than we expected. (A heart attack, for a man of Gold’s prodigious appetite, would have had a certain live-by-the-sword symmetry, but the fast-acting cancer that actually came for him smacks of nothing but nature’s cruelty.)

Those of us belonging to the next generation down, in addition to considering our own mortality afresh, also face the even more chilling prospect that the time has come for us to step up. In doing whatever part I can, I’ll certainly continue to look to Gold’s formidable archive as an example of how to think in print about not just Los Angeles but Korea as well, and even one through the prism of the other. (Among Gold’s many insights into Los Angeles, he understood how richly it repays, even as it provides, knowledge of the rest of the world.) As much as it tempts me to guess that Korean food was his favorite, I and all his readers know full well that he loved no comestible (not even his beloved bossam, “a combination plate of steamed pork belly, raw oysters, special kimchi, raw garlic and a salty condiment that looks as if it’s made by fermenting Sea Monkeys”) as much as he loved tacos.

“Tacos — can we ever have enough tacos in our lives?” Gold once asked, rhetorically. “When the taco is right, the birds start to sing and the stars shine more brightly and you have the impression that everything is right with the world.” A perfect taco, he wrote, “is a gift to the universe,” and a dedicated enough eater in Los Angeles could sometimes find himself in receipt of such a gift, usually delivered from the window of a truck. But then, in 21st-century Los Angeles — a city, Gold tended to point out, home to the second-largest Mexican community outside Mexico City and the second-largest Korean community outside Seoul — you don’t really have to choose. “Most of us have spent a fair amount of time in Mexican restaurants,” he wrote in one of his final articles, on what to eat while watching Mexico versus Korea in the World Cup. “We eat a lot of Korean food too. It tastes like Mexico! It tastes like Korea! It tastes like Los Angeles!”

 

Related Korea Blog posts:

Looking for Mexican Food in Seoul (or, the Strange Case of Hoover Taco)

How Anthony Bourdain Revealed Korea — and Los Angeles’s Koreatown

Eating Korea: an Anthony Bourdain-Approved Search for the Culinary Soul of an Ever-Changing Country

Why I Left Los Angeles for Seoul

 

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin’s Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

 

 

Image: still from City of Gold, 2015

 

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