Filmmaker Laura Gabbert talks to F&W about her new documentary, City of Gold, and discovering LA's hidden restaurant gems with the city's most notable food critic.
Documentarian Laura Gabbert approaches her subjects with heart and warmth; and though her work has a sense of humor, it's refreshingly free of dismissiveness or snark. Whatever the topic she's taking on (aging, activism, and the everyday importance—and challenge—of eco-conscious living are some she has explored), she has a gift for finding the tender heart and the universal relevance of a story. I discovered her wonderful Sunset Story—which centers on two women who meet while living at the Sunset Hall nursing home, in Los Angeles, and become dear friends—when it debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2003 and have followed her work since then. Her latest, City of Gold, which profiles celebrated Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold and is currently in theaters in cities nationwide, brings viewers in to each meal that's served and each personal history behind the restaurants Gold visits.
Gold is the first journalist in his category to win (in 2007) a Pulitzer Prize. His focus as a critic tends to be on smaller, lesser-known establishments serving ethnic cuisine—though they don't stay under the radar for long after he reviews them. (More than one proprietor in the film describes, with happy shock, the tremendous increase in business brought on by Gold's attention.) The film accompanies him in his explorations of these restaurants in the Los Angeles area and the cultures from which they spring.
Working with Gold helped Gabbert forge a deep sense of connection with L.A.'s culinary scene—even though she has lived in the city for more than 20 years. "The city is vast!" she says. "Part of what makes Los Angeles interesting is that you have to seek out experiences here. They probably won't fall right into your lap when you walk out the door. Jonathan Gold's work means a lot to Angelenos because he helps them to see L.A. in a deeper, richer way and encourages them to embrace new cultures and foods."
In conjunction with the movie's release, Gabbert gave us recommendations for some of the amazing L.A. spots that she especially enjoyed during the filmmaking process. However, she encourages readers to use the movie—and the spirit Gold conveys in it—as inspiration for further discovery. "You can take Jonathan's sense of open-mindedness and adventure and apply it to your own city," she says. "He shifts your perspective about where you live."
Here, Gabbert's top L.A. food picks, as inspired by her work on City of Gold:
1. El Parian (Mexican)
This unassuming gem in the Pico-Union area "has stayed the same for decades," Gabbert says, "and has been run by the same family all along. It's one of the first places I went with Jonathan. They were very relaxed when we were filming, very informal. Jonathan considers their goat stew, birria, the best in the city."
2. Chengdu Taste (Chinese; from the Chengdu region of Sichuan)
This restaurant has a few locations within the San Gabriel Valley, which has the largest concentration of Chinese American communities in the United States. "Chengdu Taste opened in the past two years," Gabbert says, "but it's generated a lot of excitement. Jonathan felt like this was a find—he did a lot of research about the region for his review because there were not many Chengdu-style restaurants in L.A. The cooks here are not influenced by tourists. As Jonathan says in the film, they're cooking for their own local communities." In turn, they have seen their work embraced by Los Angeles at large. Their boiled fish with green-pepper sauce is featured in the film.
3. Meals by Genet (Ethiopian)
Proprietor Genet Agonafer does all the cooking at this space in the Little Ethiopia district on Los Angeles' west side. "She comes to everyone's table," Gabbert says. "The restaurant is elegant and beautiful but still affordable." Agonafer's storyline within the film is especially memorable, inspiring, and poignant: She immigrated from Ethiopia in order for her young son to receive a good education, supported him and herself with her work at the restaurant, and, in recent years, joyfully saw him graduate from medical school. "Her story is so beautiful," Gabbert notes, "and her food is so good!"
Here's a selection of Gabbert's other favorites from among the Los Angeles restaurants, food trucks, and markets she and Gold explored in the film.
Guelagetza: 3014 W. Olympic Blvd., ilovemole.com
Trois Mec: 716 Highland Ave., troismec.com
Marisco Jalisco: 3040 E Olympic Blvd., facebook.com/mariscosjalisco
Guerilla Tacos: 6114 Washington Blvd., guerrillatacos.com
Lucques: 8474 Melrose Ave., lucques.com
Lukshon: 3239 Helms Ave., lukshon.com
Grand Central Market: 317 S Broadway, grandcentralmarket.com
Soban: 4001 W Olympic Blvd., sobanusa.com
The Musso & Frank Grill: 6667 Hollywood Blvd., mussoandfrank.com
You can also check out Jonathan Gold's most recent "Best Of" list.
City of Gold is currently playing at select theaters nationwide. cityofgolddoc.com