24 Hours in the City of Gold
Inspired by the legacy of the late Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, James Beard nominated writer Tiffany Langston attempted to eat at every restaurant Gold visited in the documentary City of Gold—over the course of one very long day.
On March 12, 2016, my entire comprehension of food writing, what it is and what could be, changed. I was standing outside of IFC Center, an independent movie theater in New York, and I decided to roll the dice and buy a ticket to whatever film started next. That was how, at 11 a.m., I sat riveted in the back row of a tiny theater watching City of Gold and became utterly enamored of its subject, Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times. While I’d heard his name before, I wasn’t familiar with his work and hadn’t paid much attention at all to food writing in LA because the only time I’d spent there was a two-hour layover at LAX.
I was blown away by the respect Gold paid to the types of places that rarely receive industry accolades and often struggle to get press coverage. He talked about taco joints and food trucks with the same reverence usually saved for reservation-only tasting menus and restaurants with 100-page wine lists. Several proprietors credit him for saving their restaurants, by bringing them publicity when no one else would. He made Los Angeles come alive for me through the way he talked about the food. As he described what he was eating, I could almost smell and taste those dishes. The minute the credits started to roll, I started bookmarking his reviews on my phone. I wanted to read every word he’d ever written. In the 96 minutes it took for me to watch the film, he had become my food writing idol.
Two years later, I attended the James Beard Awards ceremony as a nominee and spotted Gold across the room. I don’t typically get starstruck, but he had me tongue-tied. My husband dragged me over to meet him. “You may never get this chance again,” he reasoned. He was right. A few months later, Jonathan Gold would be gone, pancreatic cancer stealing his brilliance from the world too soon.
For a person I had only spoken to for 30 seconds, his death hit me hard, harder than I expected. I spent the day re-reading his writing and re-watching City of Gold. That night, I went to dinner at my neighborhood taco truck; I felt like Gold would have approved. As I stood on a street corner in Harlem, eating al pastor, I thought about what I could do to honor the man whose writing changed how I looked at food. I decided that if I ever got to Los Angeles, I would dine in at least one Jonathan Gold-recommended restaurant every day.
In November 2018, I was headed to California for a work trip, excited to put my plan into action. Then I realized that I would only have one full day of free time, and that plan had to change. Instead, I’d go to LA and fill my one day with all of the food Jonathan Gold loved. I would try to eat at every restaurant featured in City of Gold–16 in total–in 24 hours.
Los Angeles is vast, and Gold didn’t cut corners. I was going to have to traipse all over the city, from Westwood to Pasadena, so strategy was key. I also knew that there was going to be no way I’d be able to eat full meals at every place, so I committed to eating or drinking at least one item to at least get a taste of what made that restaurant special.
Ambitious? Sure! Impossible? I’d find out.
7:28 p.m. I land at LAX, and there’s already been a wrench thrown into my plans. Trois Mec wouldn’t let me book a single ticket, and I couldn’t find a friend to join me. It’s probably for the best; I would have been hard pressed not to finish my meal for that kind of money. Looks like I’ll have to experience Trois Mec next trip.
8:45 p.m. Drop my bags off at the hotel, and I’m off to find one of the Kogi Trucks.
9:13 p.m. My Uber drops me off at the wrong corner, so I have a difficult time finding the truck at first, but it doesn’t take long to run across the crowd of hungry diners. It’s only been open for 13 minutes, and the line is already 12 people deep. I ask for recommendations, and the unanimous choice is the short rib taco.
9:28 p.m. This taco is straight fire, literally and figuratively. The meat is just the right amount of fatty and juicy, but the real star is the kimchi slaw. It’s so spicy, but I can’t stop eating it. I scarf down my prize while I call my car. I want to hit up Bludso’s BBQ before they close at 10.
9:39 p.m. I’ve been really lucky so far; the notorious LA traffic hasn’t been a factor yet, and I make it to Bludso’s pretty quickly. I grab a seat at the bar, scan the menu and order far too much food.
9:46 p.m. My quarter pound of pulled pork, pickles and cornbread arrives quickly. I eat almost all of the pork and half of the cornbread and pickles. I lived in Memphis for eight years, so I know good barbecue. If this was my last stop of the night, I could have (and would have) cleaned my plate.
10:03 p.m. As I wait for the check, I plan my next move. Pizzeria Mozza is within walking distance, but it’s open until midnight. This gives me the opportunity to hit up at least one of the two other nearby places that close at 11: Jitlada and Guelaguetza.
10:07 p.m. Bill is paid and car is called. Guelaguetza it is. If I have room in my belly, I’ll swing back by Pizzeria Mozza afterward.
10:18 p.m. Guelaguetza is hopping, and there’s a 20-minute wait for a table. Luckily there’s a seat at the bar, because I’m on a schedule.
10:25 p.m. All the barbecue is starting to catch up to me. I need to take it easy here if I’m going to have a prayer of making another stop tonight. I decide on chocoflan and a michelada, which was one of Gold’s favorites. Chocolate cake, creamy custard and spicy beer might sound like a weird combination, but it really works.
10:52 p.m. I take a moment to catch my breath. I do think I’m going to head back to Pizzeria Mozza, but that will definitely be all I can do today. I’m starting to flag. I pay the bill and call a car.
11:08 p.m. Third sit-down restaurant of the night, and third seating at the bar. I get a fantastic view of the wood-burning oven, and all those delicious smells really make me wish I had the stomach space for pizza.
11:24 p.m. My last meal of the day arrives, fried squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta and a glass of Lambrusco. The squash blossoms are scrumptious, crispy and light, but I feel like I’m just stuffing my gullet at this point.
11:38 p.m. I can’t help but think they want me to order more food. I’ve finished my squash blossoms and my server asks if I want to see the menu again to order an entrée. I decline and ask for the check.
11:40 p.m. They drop the dessert menu instead.
11:43 p.m. I feel shamed, so I order the butterscotch budino.
11:48 p.m. The budino is really, really good, but I only get through half. I just don’t have any more space. I cry a little inside.
11:57 p.m. I’m done, stuffed to the brim. I head back to the hotel to get some sleep and get ready to do it all over again tomorrow.
10:03 a.m. Crap, I meant to be up and moving earlier than this; I really wanted to have 12 hours (or more) today. My first stop, Europane, opened at 7. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make up some time later.
10:38 a.m. Traffic isn’t bad, but my goodness Pasadena is really far out. Because I have a full day of eating ahead of me, I’m going to start off with just a chai latte.
10:46 a.m. As I’m waiting for my drink, I realize there are two Europane locations on the same street, and I’m not at the one featured in the film. Sigh. I think about claiming success anyway, but I want to do this right. It’s only a 15-minute walk, and the weather is beautiful, so I'm going to hoof it.
11:07 a.m. I drink my latte on the way. Now I need something to eat.
11:10 a.m. I order a cheese danish twist and take a seat to strategize my next steps. My mistake has put me another 30 minutes behind schedule.
11:33 a.m. I motor to Alhambra to check out Chengdu Taste. I’ll have to bring friends next time, because people around me are eating things that look incredible but are obviously meant to be shared. I settle on Sichuan Tan Tan noodles for lunch.
11:56 a.m. Sichuan food has a tingly heat that builds without you noticing. I’m halfway through this delightful bowl of savory pleasure, and I’m just now realizing I can’t feel my tongue.
12:13 p.m. I pay the check and head outside to catch my ride to Guerilla Tacos. I hit the timing jackpot at Chengdu. There were only a handful of diners when I sat down, and right now, every table is full and there are at least 10 people waiting
12:20 p.m. I really shouldn’t have eaten all of those noodles, but I couldn’t help it. I need to pace myself or I don’t stand a chance of making it through the rest of the places on my list.
12:33 p.m. There's a short line at Guerilla Taco, but it moves quickly. I pay for my order and find a seat at the bar (of course).
12:46 p.m. I now have a sweet potato taco and a pineapple passion fruit juice in my possession. This was the perfect-sized follow up to my unintentionally large lunch. I feel like I’m back on track.
1:05 p.m. I’m off to Grand Central Market.
1:21 p.m. Grand Central Market is very crowded and there are tons of options. I take a few minutes to survey my choices and make a game plan.
1:39 p.m. I settle on two scoops of McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream, one sweet cream and one churros con leche, on a sugar cone. I enjoy my treat as I stroll around the market to digest all of this food.
2:05 p.m. Distance wise, I should really go to Mexicali next, but they close at four, and Jitlada closes at three. So, Jitlada, here I come.
2:19 p.m. I order a full pad woon sen entree at Jitlada, and as soon as it arrives, I realize I’ve made a huge mistake. I’m actually feeling pretty full. I should have chosen an appetizer or a small plate, but I panicked and went for something I knew. There were so many options, and I did want to waste precious minutes poring over the menu.
2:36 p.m. Yep, this is too much food.
2:38 p.m. Even though this would make my top five pad woon sen list, I can’t help but think I may have dropped the ball here. I should have taken the time to pick something more adventurous, like the house specialty spicy beef curry, which is so hot that it’s served with crushed ice and cucumbers. It feels like a missed opportunity.
2:53 p.m. This is the first time I’ve had to pack up the remainder of my meal and take it to go, but I’ve got to shake a leg and get to Mexicali Taco & Co. before they close.
3:24 p.m. Since they’re winding down for the day, I’m the only customer. Service is friendly and quick. I down a cheese quesadilla and some horchata. I think I’m getting my second wind.
3:51 p.m. I take a shared car to Attari Sandwich Shop to save a few bucks. I’ve still got a lot of things to try, and I need to keep an eye on my budget.
4:28 p.m. I get dropped off a couple of blocks from the restaurant, so I stroll through Westwood and take in the sites. I wish I had time to do some shopping, because there are great stores in this area.
4:35 p.m. I check out the menu and settle on saffron rice pudding. I sit in the courtyard to enjoy my snack and soak up this beautiful LA weather.
5:27 p.m. On to the next, but the struggle is real. Everything is starting to catch up with me, and I don’t know how much further I can go.
5:54 p.m. I walk into Meals by Genet without a reservation. Silly me. (And honestly, shame on me for thinking I wouldn’t need one.) All tables are booked up until 8, but the waiter graciously offers to see if Genet will make me something to go. There are already five tables seated, so I don’t get my hopes up. Genet cooks everything by herself, and if she’s already busy, she won’t have time. The waiter comes back and says the only thing Genet can do at the moment is a vegetarian combo, and I gladly take it. I really appreciate him helping me out, and I’ll definitely make a reservation next time.
6:15 p.m. I’ve got my food, and I toy with the idea of grabbing a car and heading to another stop on my list. But if I don’t eat something, it feels like cheating. I go back to the hotel and dig into the delicious dinner Genet has prepared just for me. The tikil gomen (cabbage and carrots) is especially pleasing, and the injera is probably the best I’ve ever tasted. I can’t wait to go back and try the doro wat that Gold raved about.
7:01 p.m. I know I still have time to make it to at least one more place on the list, but I can’t eat another bite. In addition to Trois Mec, I haven’t been to Earle’s on Crenshaw, Kiriko Sushi or Mariscos Jalisco. But it’s time to wave the white flag and tap out.
I thought I would be disappointed for not making it to every restaurant on the list, or at least every restaurant I could, but I realize I don’t feel even a smidge of sadness. I’m warm, extremely full and surprisingly content. What started out as a wild quest to bombard myself with all of the food I could fit into a single day became an adventure in exploring the unexpected and finding deliciousness beyond the places I might typically look for it.
The restaurant industry—and the world—are quite different today in July 2020 than in late fall 2018, and as I contemplate how things have changed since Jonathan Gold’s death, I can’t help but think we need him now more than ever. Before COVID-19, every single restaurant profiled in City of Gold was still open, and from what I could tell, thriving. His reviews, love letters to the people and tastes of Los Angeles, were a driving force in encouraging diners like me to take chances and try things they may have never considered. And when cities finally fully reopen and restaurants dig their way out from under a brutal system that makes it so hard for them to succeed or even exist in the first place, I have to believe that the scrappiness, resilience, and authenticity that Gold spoke so highly about will help LA prevail.
I feel blessed to have savored Jonathan Gold’s Los Angeles. It was, is, and will be an amazing culinary hub. While it may never again be the exact city that Gold’s words describe, it is the power of those words, and the passion they embody that will continue to be an integral part of the fabric of LA for years to come. And hopefully, more people, like me, will have the opportunity to experience the eclectic, surprising, and delicious food of Los Angeles, guided by the hand of someone who loved its sprawling expanse, exemplified its spirit and championed all of its flavors.
City of Gold is currently streaming on IFC Films Unlimited.