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The LAist Interview Premiere Edition: Jonathan Gold

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Because we are so fond of this city and all the great things about it, we here at LAist decided to focus on some of the people that make LA such a unique and interesting place. With that in mind, here is the inaugural edition of a new LAist feature. Today we introduce a new, biweekly interview series featuring conversations about Los Angeles with interesting and opinionated Angelenos, which we are kicking off off with Jonathan Gold, a true LAist who has been writing the "Counter Intelligence" food column for the LA Weekly since 1986.

Jonathan is the author of Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles, a former restaurant critic for Los Angeles Magazine, and has contributed to California magazine, Gourmet, and the Los Angeles Times.

(Roughly) 20 Questions for Jonathan Gold

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01. Occupation.
"Restaurant critic for LA Weekly."

02. You’re an LA native who knows this city inside out, and your articles suggest you’re quite familiar with other cities around the world. Where else have you lived?

"Where else is there? I spent a few months in a San Francisco squat once, back when I believed the sum of human happiness was to be found in seeing the punk-rock band Flipper three times a week. And I moved to New York a few years ago to eat foie gras and white asparagus for Gourmet. I’m back now, although I still spend a certain amount of time at my apartment in Brooklyn."

03. In addition to your food and dining expertise, you seem to be a serious music fan because your reviews often mention what genres and tunes are being piped in. What types of music do you least want to hear when eating out?

"Dining is a fine way to spend an evening. Listening to music is perhaps even better. But unless the person up on stage, through a miracle of science, happens to be Ella Fitzgerald singing the Duke Ellington songbook, the two activities do not go together – and I’m looking right at you, Thai Elvis.

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That being said, it is almost axiomatic that the best Southeast Asian restaurants play the worst music, often at high volume: screeching Cantopop, romantic Vietnamese piano stylings; even KOST-FM. You have to decide for yourself whether a plate of perfect murtabak is worth an hour with the contemporary stylings of Dan Hill or Bread."

Keep reading after the jump for more questions and answers.

04. I’ve heard Eric Asimov of the New York Times say he can’t bring himself to eat frog legs. Where do you draw the line?

"Just the legs? There are so many other parts of the frog to choose from. The snow frog ovaries common in Chinese desserts; the hacked frog Khmer chefs saute with lemon grass; the wispy, crunchy gloves of inside-out frog skin that garnish the garlic-pepper amphibian at certain Thai restaurants – why limit yourself to just the legs?

For some reason, though, I find myself unable to look at a plate of scrambled eggs without flinching."

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05. What’s the best city on the planet for mile-per-mile sheer intensity of awesome gastronomic and culinary experiences?

"For the adrenaline-rush, spike-in-the-vein sensation of mainlined gluttony, there is nothing quite like Singapore, which sometimes seems to consist of a warren of food stalls loosely connected by such unimportant things as subway lines and roads, and where eating is one of the few pleasurable activities not directly prohibited by the government. It’s where even casual gluttons fall captive to the culinary equivalent of Stendahl Syndrome.

Still, I would submit that Los Angeles is probably the best place to eat in the world, a huge patchwork of immigrant communities big enough and self-sustaining enough to produce exactly the food that they want to eat, with the access to California’s superb produce and terrific wines, the money necessary to hire the best chefs, and the numbers to be able to ignore the tastes of the occasional customer not of their national group. There may be better French restaurants in Paris, better Italian restaurants in Rome, better taquerias in Guadalajara and better noodleshops in Taipei, but the ones here are really, really good, and they happen to exist within a few freeway minutes of one another."

06. Do you keep a closet full of costumes, wigs, funny hats and sunglasses to disguise your identity when dining out, or do you prefer the “to hell with anonymity” school of restaurant criticism?

"You might be surprised, but it is actually easier to get a good table at Spago when you arrive wearing a burqa. Although sometimes it is hard to guess the vintage of the Musigny when you are forced to sniff the wine through the heavy linen veil."

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07. What's your preferred mode of transportation?

"A battered Dodge pickup truck with an excellent sound system. You can haul a whole lot of organic turnips in the bed, and the (empty) gun rack in the back is an excellent device for deterring wayward SUVs. It is extremely satisfying to roll up to a stoplight bumping Donizetti as if it were the Lench Mob."

08. How often do you ride the subway or light rail?

"The subway? You mean the express train to Langer’s?"

09. What's the best novel written in Los Angeles?

"That one's easy: Doktor Faustus."

10. In your humble opinion, the best album?

"Richie Valens Live at Pacoima Junior High. Best music? Schoenberg's 'Fourth String Quartet.' But there have been so many great songs. I'll go with 'Whittier Boulevard' by Thee Midnighters. Even if it is an instrumental."

11. Name your favorite movie or TV show that's based in LA.

"Singing in the Rain. Which also happens to be the best movie ever made."

12. What's the best alternate route to the 405?

"From midtown to the South Bay, Van Ness is a gentle but swift alternative to the dreaded South Bay Curve. At its southern end, you will find some excellent Japanese noodle shops."

13. What's the best place to walk in LA?

"Through the parking lot of San Gabriel Square on a warm evening, the lights of the mall’s 20-odd regional Chinese restaurants bobbing before you, each better than the next, the smells of roasting ducks and frying garlic and simmering pork hocks driving you insane with hunger. It is the kind of walk that tends to transform itself into a little trot about halfway through. Very good for the digestion."

14. It's 9:30 pm on Thursday. Where are you coming from and where are you going?

"One of the Thursday-night LA Weekly readings at Boardner’s in Hollywood will have just wound up. The whisky in my system is approaching critical mass. Soon, I will be eating stinky, delicious Thai food, maybe at one of the late-night noodle shops out by the Wat Thai in North Hollywood, but more likely at Ruen Pair."

15. If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?

"I think I’ve lived in Los Angeles during its most interesting times. I’ve been lucky enough to see Mingus and N.W.A, Beck and the Germs, Heifetz and Van Halen. I felt the heat of the fires during both riots, and as a baby I once went swimming in Stravinsky’s pool. I was dimly aware of the sixties on the Sunset Strip, and as it turns out, dimly aware was the right thing to be. I’ve watched Los Angeles restaurants go from impossibly provincial to the envy of the world, then back. But sometimes I daydream about the bohemian life that centered around the Arroyo a hundred years ago, when the idea of Good Living was still a romantic concept. Maybe I could have been a nature poet or something."

16. What is the "center" of LA to you?

"Joan Didion once identified the still center of the turning world as the intersection of Sunset and La Brea. That works for me."

17. If you were forced to live in a neighboring county, which would it be? Ventura County is a wussy answer.

"When the Brunello di Montalcino has kicked in and Merle Haggard is on the stereo, Kern County can seem unusually attractive, a county of rough bars, rugged scenery, and thick fogs that begin sometime in the middle of November and rarely lift before spring, a county where you can eat 12-course Basque dinners, watch the speedboat races on Ming Lake and head over to Oildale to hear Red Simpson sing 'Roll Truck Roll,' sometimes all in the same day. Bakersfield is the place closest to metro Los Angeles that feels definitively like Somewhere Else."

18. If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?

"North Pasadena, where I live, boasts excellent architecture, great hamburger stands, beautiful live oaks and parties populated by writers, physicists and rogue bassoonists, yet is only 15 minutes from the sturdier pleasures available downtown. The waterfalls and hiking trails in the San Gabriel front range are nearby, and the mountain view from my office window is framed by fruited orange trees, as if plucked from a vintage postcard. We even have a Democratic congressman now, although it did take more than 100 years. But if anyone you know has a reasonably priced Harwell Hamilton Harris house for sale, don’t hesitate to drop me a line."

19. Drinking, driving. They mix poorly, and yet they're inexorably linked. How do you handle this conflict?

"If you avoid cheap wine, drunkenness is rarely a problem. I do, though, aspire one day to afford enough top-shelf Barolo for it to be a problem."

20. What do you have to say to East Coast supremacists?

"Take a quick left onto La Cienega, and then a right at Century. You’ll be at LAX in no time."

21. Do you find the threat of earthquakes preferable to the threat of hurricanes and long winters?

"Yes. Also to the threats of tornadoes, typhoons, flooding, Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis, global warming, tidal waves and sharks."

22. Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?

"Right here, baby."

Jonathan Gold's restaurant reviews can be found in the LA Weekly.

Interview conducted by Jessica Ritz.