Odes to Greasy Spoons Net Pulitzer Prize

Michele Norris talks with L.A. Weekly restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, who won a Pulitzer Prize this week. Gold specializes in reviewing little-known eateries in the Los Angeles area, as well as old standbys. Popular reviews have included "Home of the Porno Burrito" and "The Devil's Own Steak House."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Our next segment is for anyone who regularly devours the restaurant reviews in their local paper, especially those of you who wonder why restaurant critics seem to focus on the fancy shmancy spots with expensive menus and food you can't pronounce.

Well, meet Jonathan Gold. He's a restaurant critic whose column called "Counter Intelligence" appears in the L.A. Weekly, a free alternative paper in Los Angeles.

Gold says he uses food as a window to explore the diversity and daily rhythms of Los Angeles, both the expensive eateries and the exotic spots where immigrants search for a taste of home.

Yesterday, Gold's unique reproach, unique - excuse me - yesterday, Jonathan Gold's unique approach to reviewing restaurants won him a Pulitzer Prize. We spoke with Gold today, and he explains how he selects his subjects.

Mr. JONATHAN GOLD (Columnist, L.A. Weekly): For a lot of the restaurants, and I love the various - for want of a better word - ethnic food in Los Angeles, and I'm always the first person to try a new place from, like, the mountainous part of Peru as opposed to the plains of Peru. I mean, those places I find mostly by driving around.

And you wouldn't believe how many bad meals I eat in order to find the ones that I review every week. It's just innumerable bad meals. But that's fine. That's part of the experience, too.

NORRIS: So once you visit a restaurant and you think it may be worth your Attention...

Mr. GOLD: Right.

NORRIS: ...do you go back a few times?

Mr. GOLD: Sometimes just an astronomical number of times, especially if there's a cuisine or a chef that I know is doing something really good and really noteworthy and really skillfully, but I just hate it.

There was a Taiwanese restaurant in the suburb of San Gabriel once that I went to, and I recognized the craft in the kitchen but I just despised the food. There were all kinds of smoky flavors and gooey textures and really strong, sort of old gym shoe style funky odors coming out of things, but I realized it was exactly what the chef had intended it to be.

So I ended going back there 17 times and having the dishes I didn't like over and over and over again until I figured out what the aesthetic was, what they were trying to do. Then and only then did I feel I was capable of writing about it.

NORRIS: And did you describe it just that way - it has the odor of old funky gym shoes?

Mr. GOLD: Yes, there was a particular thing - a bitter melon. Have you seen the - they're, like, light green, they're sort of cucumber shaped, and they're warty as if they'd been kissed by toads all over?

NORRIS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GOLD: And I described one dish there as being bitter, not, like, bitter like coffee, but bitter like cancer medicine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLD: But I meant it in a good way.

NORRIS: Can I ask you about a few of your specific reviews? I want to begin with a review of restaurant that serves a dish called okonomiyaki - did I pronounce that correctly?

Mr. GOLD: Close enough.

NORRIS: Close enough, okay. You just - you say that this is the homeliest food in creation. And when it arrives, when it's presented, you're not sure if you should kill it or eat it.

Mr. GOLD: Okonomiyaki is really ugly. It's a big glob. It's a pancake, sort of an egg batter with a bunch of stuff in it that's set in - glopped onto a griddle. And they top it with shaved bonito flakes. I don't know if you've seen shaved bonito on hot food, but it does not stay still. It sort of wafts and curls and moves about in eddies and drafts coming off the hot food like a sea anemone in the ocean, and it's positively a creepy thing to encounter. It's alarming to behold and delicious to eat.

NORRIS: Now in this case, you'd written one review of a restaurant that serves This, and you got all these e-mails from people saying no, no, you went to the wrong place. If you really want the good stuff, you have to go here.

NORRIS: That happens sometimes. In this place, I did one in a place in the suburb of Gardena that was geared towards expatriate students, you know, kids who wanted to go to a place and read comic books and eat okonomiyaki. And in fact, there was a better place that was a little more upscale but the ingredients were really good, and they specialized in the Hiroshima style of okonomiyaki, which is slightly different and very delicious.

NORRIS: You also write about these donuts, which you say are the only donuts you know that are actually served on a plate, with a fork, because they are so big and gooey and slightly messy and very delicious. And when you write this review, I wonder if you're writing this almost as an invitation or dare for the reader to get to the end of it before wanting to put it down, get in the car and drives to the place that serves this thing.

Mr. GOLD: I've heard that that review increased traffic on the 210 Freeway by quite a bit that week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLD: It's this wonderful donut stand in Glendora, which is about 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, in a town that used to be filled with fruit groves. And this donut stand is an old-time stand on Route 66. They specialize in these fresh fruit donuts in season, one of which is a strawberry donut that has practically a basket of fresh strawberries from a farm down the road and glaze. It weighs a pound and a half. I mean, it's a giant donut, but it is just delicious. And in June, which I can hardly wait for, it's peach season, and the fresh peach donuts come in.

NORRIS: You seem to review not just restaurants but coffee shops, in some cases grocery stores. You take a very expansive view of what some would, sort of, I guess, just call a restaurant critique. You seem to look at food in all its forms.

Mr. GOLD: Sure, I mean, if you live in Los Angeles, you're going to go to Valentino, which will serve you in an exquisite Italian meal, maybe twice a year and you'll pay $400 a couple and you'll be really happy and drunk. But you're going to the burrito stand on the corner, or you're going to get gelato from the gelato cart at the movie theater, or you're going drive through the taquito place way more than that, maybe a couple times a week. And some of that food is as good in its way as the $400 meal, and it needs to be addressed.

NORRIS: Well, congratulations, Jonathan. It's been a pleasure to talk to you.

Mr. GOLD: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: Jonathan Gold writes the "Counter Intelligence" columns in the L.A. Weekly, and he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize this week.

(Soundbite of music)

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