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Jonathan Gold, Ambassador of L.A. Cuisines, Has Died

[dropcap size=big]H[/dropcap]e was large, balding, usually wore suspenders and a frumpled shirt, and drove a beat-up pick-up truck as he tasted new delights in the culinary galaxy that is Los Angeles food.

Jonathan Gold, the L.A.-born journalist who redefined food writing and criticism for new generations of eaters enamored with tacos and kimchi, has died. Gold was 57 years old and his death was reported Saturday by the Los Angeles Times, where he served as food critic since 2012, a capstone to a career made in Los Angeles from beginning to end.

The journalist’s gift was his ability to cross cultural, social, and linguistic lines to engage the disparate and diverse communities of Southern California through the meager medium of a cheap plate of food.

Gold's love of Mexican cuisines in particular was immeasurable; he used the phrase "taco lifestyle" in his work. Gold put multiple names that are now in Los Angeles lore first on the map: places like Guelaguetza, Meals by GenetJitlada, or Mariscos Jalisco, the Boyle Heights mariscos truck that Gold called the finest in town.

To younger generations of food writers and journalists, not to mention celebrity chefs and on-air personalities, Gold gave us the template of the open, modest food mediator who effortlessly translated the wonders and virtues of even the most unseemly foods — such as fast-food chain tacos — to any eater or reader.

"For a while in my late teens, long before I could have told you the difference between a quesadilla and a quenelle, I ate at Oki Dog more often than I did at home," Gold wrote in a classic Counter Intelligence column in 1990. "About 2 in the morning, after an evening of slam-dancing to the Germs or the Dead Kennedys or whatever at the old Starwood, I'd end up at the Oki Dog in West Hollywood, which was the closest thing there was to a punk-rock after-hours club."

BELOW: Trailer 'City of Gold'

[dropcap size=big]G[/dropcap]old journeyed to food by way of the LA Weekly. He started there as a proofreader in 1982, while still a student at UCLA. In 1986, with editor Jay Levin, he launched his signature column “Counter Intelligence,” which cemented his voice as a chronicler of folk food establishments, usually founded by immigrants, in the ever-evolving fabric of Southern California. The strip mall was his palate.

At the Weekly (where his profile of the rap group NWA is legendary), he founded The Essential 99 list, in 2005, and sought to elevate the "cheap eats" that spoke in a "Los Angeles accent."

Gold also met his eventual wife, the journalist and editor Laurie Ochoa, who was a rising star at the Weekly during a time that it was a standard-bearer of alternative journalism on the West Coast. They met in 1984 and married in 1990. “Counter Intelligence” became a book in 2000. Ochoa, a cool-headed and soft-spoken champion of talent, eventually rose to become editor-in-chief. She managed to run one of the most storied alt-weeklies in the country, while also supervising her spouse.

Their efforts paid off, when Gold won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism while at the Weekly in 2007, the first restaurant critic to win the prestigious honor. This writer remembers the day Gold celebrated the prize while doused in champagne by sharing an oversized celebratory glass with Ochoa. It was an incredibly joyous moment and an affirmation of Gold's national role in reshaping American food writing.

[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]ith the changes in ownership and editorial cutbacks by corporate owners of news organizations in the last two decades, Ochoa and Gold both eventually fled the Weekly, finding refuge at the Times. Both had previously worked there. In recent years, Gold expanded on his expertise, building best-of lists, headlining food events, and still finding time to pinpoint new gems on the L.A. map for ever-hungry readers.

Gold was the subject of a 2015 documentary, “City of Gold,” which led to the unmasking of his by-then relative anonymity. With time the most sought-after "name" in food in L.A. — the language of the streets — was a portly guy standing in line at the late-night taco truck, like anyone else.

Gold went on to be featured in major food television shows, most recently in "Ugly Delicious" on Netflix, alongside L.A. Taco contributor, journalist author Gustavo Arellano. He was also an early champion of the taco-writing abilities of L.A. Taco cohort Javier Cabral, who was once a young East L.A. punk who read a review by Gold in the Weekly and decided to write the critic, an exchange that launched Cabral's writing career.

"Personally, he made it OK for me accept my obsession with food," Cabral told me tonight from Mexico.

Remembrances flooded social media after word of Gold’s passing spread. "We are incredibly heartbroken for his family, for this city, for the culinary world. It's such a loss,” Jaime Martin del Campo, co-owner of Casita Mexicana and Mexicano L.A., told L.A. Taco.

One year ago, Gold posted on Instagram a seemingly informal list of "rules for dining in Los Angeles." The final one is: The Taco Honors the Truck.

Five rules

A post shared by Jonathan Gold (@the_thejgold) on

In his final piece in the paper, Gold was doing what he loved and did best, in its pure form. He wrote a piece about what to eat while watching the Mexico vs. South Korea match at the World Cup — two of his greatest culinary and cultural muses:

"The Los Angeles area is home to the second-largest Mexican community in the world, second only to Mexico City. It is also home to the largest Korean community outside Korea. As Angelenos, most of us have spent a fair amount of time in Mexican restaurants. We eat a lot of Korean food too. At Roy Choi’s Kogi trucks, and at the imitators of the Kogi trucks, we eat a lot of Korean-Mexican food too – kimchi quesadillas and hot dogs with sesame mayo, but mostly the tacos stuffed with things like galbi or gochujang-sluiced chicken and condiments that neatly split the difference between panchan and salsa bar," he writes.

The piece was published June 22. Gold was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early July.

Read the Jonathan Gold byline archives at LA Weekly.

Read Gold's 101 Best Restaurants list in the L.A. Times.

Erick Galindo and Alex Blazedale contributed to this report. * Post updated.

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