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Film Review

City of Gold

If you love food and good documentaries, read on. If not, you can skip both City of Gold as well as this review. (You also might consider leaving California.)

Probably nothing has had a more profound impact on California food culture in the past 30 years than the surge of new immigrants to America. In 1965, a change in immigration laws permitting greater third world immigration brought hundreds of thousands of people from East Asia. Often driven by conflict, such as the fall of Saigon (1975), but even more sought refuge from poverty in an America they saw as a land of opportunity and security. Terrible conflicts in Central America during the 1970's drove still others north as well. Many immigrants settled in poor, minority communities, and opening a restaurant seemed like a good business in which the entire family, could and often did, work together.

The late 1970's, saw a flourishing of new Vietnamese restaurants. Chinese restaurants had always been here but they were almost entirely westernized. With this new wave of immigration their character and number changed dramatically. Once obscure (to us) regions of China (Chengdu, Hunan, Sichuan, Hakka, Shandong, Fujian, to name a few) began sending over large numbers of immigrants, often whole families. Formerly unknown cuisines surfaced in restaurants. Nowhere was this explosion of ethnic restaurants more in evidence than in the City of Angels. San Francisco enjoyed a similar phenomenon but on a much smaller scale. Los Angeles had always been a popular immigrant destination due to the weather, proximity to the ocean, and the general West Coast tendency to welcome diversity (Orange County excepted). There were also many poor and working class neighborhoods that were affordable, such as Compton, Gardena and Alhambra, which all attracted immigrant families.

Jonathan Gold, a well known Los Angeles food writer, now with the LA Times, became seriously interested in ethnic food in the 1980's while an art and music student at UCLA. He had a spectacular launch by eating at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard, which runs for 15 miles from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles and even then was filled with many ethnic restaurants. He ate, survived, and the experience changed his life. He began to write for the LA Weekly, where he met his wife, Laurie Ochoa, who was one of the paper's editors. Gold is a bear of a guy with a major belly and long stringy hair; a very counterculture look. He drives a pickup truck albeit sans a gun rack. Unlike some restaurant critics, he doesn't attempt to conceal his identity though he does make reservations under various names. Many restaurant owners recognize him. He knows that they go out of their way to please him, but the food's the thing. He always eats wherever he's reviewing at least 4 to 5 times, with his record at 17 visits (It must have been really good!). Gold loves hot and spicy, virtually a requirement for some of the cuisines. But he is more than a restaurant critic. He is a social commentator, looking at how various ethnic groups have prospered here and how their cultures have been affected by their contact with American culture. A lunch and conversation with Calvin Trillin is marvelous and filled with insights. Gold narrates, showing us Los Angeles, not as a melting pot situation but rather as a mosaic, in which each fragment maintains its own integrity. Clearly, Gold is not the stereotypical cranky food critic. His knowledge of food is astonishing but he remains warm, accessible, generous and fascinated by Los Angeles. Three minutes after he appears on screen, you love him.

Laura Gabbert, a documentary film maker (No Impact Man), just released City of Gold. Her film looks at the huge spectrum of ethnic food in Los Angeles and at Jonathan Gold himself. Either topic could easily have made a fine film, but the focus on both together has created a wonderful synergy and a fascinating look at Los Angeles food culture. Gabbert films many ethnic restaurants and food trucks, and lets the owners tell their own amazing stories about food and culture. Most came to this country with very little, having learned cooking from mothers and grandmothers. Watching the dishes being made is compelling and hunger inducing. Often it is like watching a ballet, as the chef swoops around the wok or stove. These are people who love what they do, and do it very well. After watching these scenes, you will feel starved. Gabbert's editing is first rate, and includes a number of very interesting interviews, some quite moving. One Latina owner says that one day she noticed all these white people in her restaurant and couldn't understand how they heard about her. Of course it was Gold's review. My only real criticism is that the film goes by too quickly. Some of the owners talk about how they have been changed by living in America. I wish she had shown more of that footage. E pluribus unum is a democratic ideal, but it is also important to preserve the mother cultures in the rush to become American. Street food culture, which now includes truck food, is alive and very well in Los Angeles and spreading throughout the country. There is so much fascinating information here, including Gold's discussion of Jewish delis and class. Some delis were favored by working class Jews and others by Jewish businessman, but prices seemed not to be the reason. Gabbert's film is so positive and is such a great antidote to the toxic political messages about immigration constantly heard from many of the presidential candidates. Loved this film! We walked out of the theater with a real high, famished, and drove straight to Fort Mason for their Friday evening Off the Grid food scene. They now have 30 trucks and tents, all packed. Some great food down there, and diverse. So if you love food and/or are interested in popular culture, don't miss this very accomplished film, ideally followed by dinner at one of the Off the Grid events. City of Gold is screening at the Embarcadero, the Rafael (San Rafael), and the Shattuck (Berkeley). Playing time: 92 minutes.

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