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The Gold Standard

I can take food trucks or leave them, but I don't really want to talk about food trucks all that much anyway. I really want to talk about Jonathan Gold. Because he more than anyone brought us all this.

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LA has this reputation for great street food. Mr. Gold more than anyone else is responsible for cultivating this reputation. He was the longtime restaurant critic for the Weekly who is now at the Times. He actually won a Pulitzer for his scribblings about food writing.

But in my opinion, Gold is mostly a publicist, dishing out what people want to hear about our city--something very different from the reality we encounter when we encounter street food. A kind of Jeffrey Deitch of cuisine, he elevated cheap eats and street cuisine to veritable museum status.

I disagree that at the street level we are very great at all. To me, LA street food does not belong on a plinth. Our real cuisine is too good to deserve this side-by-side comparison.

Now, my wife and I feel like we know food, but my wife actually has bona fides in the realm. She lived in Northern Italy for a year and has traveled through Europe extensively. We've been to France together a few times, and she many more than I, but we have both tracked down great meals in Paris and elsewhere there. Hong Kong, Seoul, New York, she's eaten well there.

And about seven years ago, she took a 26-week course at New School of Cooking. She subsequently worked for Nancy Silverton's fabled La Brea Bakery a Sunday a week for a year.  The New School's professional program, which generally follows the curriculum of the Culinary Institute of America, is one of the west coast's best. This is not to mention all the cooking classes we have attended, especially from our local Pinot restaurants, which we like to do recreationally. Nor all the reading we do on cooking when we are not actually cooking.

All this is by way of saying that we rarely were able to make it through a Jonathan Gold column at the Weekly without disagreeing profoundly about something, and usually it's about how something for $6 or less has made him gaga. (Now that he's at the Times, of course, we don't read him at all, but...)

To cite my own favorite example: Gold has oft declared Juanito's tamales to be the closest to your auntie's in town. If you've never had them, I want to assure you that Juanito's tamales are indeed the largest in town for the money. But for about five years now, we've served these bloated, rubbery, slippery jobs to guests nearly every Xmas, along with other tamales we actually like, and I don't think we've ever had a single guest who has ever preferred Juanito's. And of course we do this as an exercise in part to demonstrate that we think Gold is demonstrably wrong even about very fundamental things in the LA restaurant tableau--and what is more fundamentally LA than the tamale?

In another example, the Thai restaurant on which he has lavished the most praise over the past half-decade is the cheap and spectacularly eclectic and miserably run Jitlada on Sunset.

I have been there three times in the past two years, again as a kind of lab experiment to test what earns Gold's favored-Thai status. Once I went with a well-known writer who has been around the globe quite a bit and who knows food fairly well. Once I went with my longtime friend and Thai aficianado Michael, whose love of Thailand is such that he is presently there. And once with my wife.

In general: most of the stuff they serve at Jitlada is so deep-fried that it could easily come in a Jack-in-the-Box bag. ("Deep-fried cardboard" I think I called it more than once).  There is almost no taste specific to anything. They serve probably two hundred dishes and we have tried at least a dozen of them. We think it is a good restaurant, even a dream restaurant--for a teenage boy. I am left wondering if the mussels have recently fetched acclaim because mussels are certainly one thing that is nearly impossible to screw up if they're fresh and clean and not dumped in frying oil or soapy water.  (The restaurant seems to do fish and shellfish well--nothing special, but well--for a restaurant of its price).

Two of the three times I've been there, the owner has for some reason come to our table to apologize for something or other, something's that not going right somewhere in the restaurant--these table visits were completely unprompted by any complaints or even pouty faces. I suppose that's good but, when you feel you have to apologize for something even when nobody's complained, that can't be good.

At any rate, the larger point is that we the public have pretty much, I believe, been sold a bag of goods on the quality of our street food, our cheap eats, and especially on food trucks in general. While I don't want to vilify Mr. Gold in particular about this, he is certainly the voice who has most contributed to the concept that the "quality" of LA's street food is magnifique.

This sentiment more than anything else enabled the possibility of the whole food truck phenomenon.  So for me, I am doubly suspicious of the sentiment.

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But I will say that on one important level, all the fuss about our street food has been thrilling to see: for Mr. Gold, it is obvious from reading any of his columns, is truly a writer of considerable influence. Regarding this, there can be no dispute. I don't feel confident that he knows burrata beyond what's in the press packet. I haven't seen him level nearly enough tough criticism to be a good critic, and I know there is plenty in LA to criticize. But he is indeed a writer, and one of considerable influence.

I may vastly prefer M.F.K. Fisher. I may be a sucker for Bourdain. I may have read a third of Eat Pray Love just for the Eat part. And I may disagree with Gold three times out of seven. But to see a persuasive, creative writer wield that much influence in our pueblo--the ability to convince not just a neighborhood but a whole continent that these places are wonderful, when they are in fact often simply tedious--is a joy to behold.

Of course, with the food trucks, from the beginning it was mostly a social thing anyway, wasn't it? The tweeting Kogi trucks were probably at least half the motive behind hipsters in LA becoming early adapters of social media--people even knew their names.  The Vals are always secretly covetous of hipster action, and once food trucks came to the Valley, the Valley went nuts for them. But the food truck thing was never much of either a deal thing--or a cuisine thing.

Alas, to me, food trucks are mostly a spit away from blight, another roadside attraction sprung on an unsuspecting public. Like everything else that trends in LA, they are popular because they are ersatz, temporary, cheap. Occasionally they may serve as food addresses to be reached in case of a hunger emergency. You are probably playing a modified version of Russian roulette by simply eating at one. But as a destination? You have to be kidding.

We have great, great restaurants and bistros in Los Angeles--we found another one just last week, Le Pour Haus downtown--places where one can actually celebrate milestones and talk to friends in confidence and comfort. We have great, great bars for socializing--there are ten within walking distance of me. And we have tons of restaurants that probably don't even want the kind of customers that frequent food trucks--so the people who swear by food trucks aren't doing these any damage, unless they're taking up too many parking spaces.

So there is absolutely no food truck controversy for me: I eat out often, but never in a place with teeming clusters of rubber, asphalt, and people. You may be different, and you are welcome to your difference.

As a diner who likes to sit with people known to me and at a sturdy table, I simply hope that if you like to frequent these food truck things, you also remain considerate of the establishments that actually dare to serve your neighborhood every day of the week--not just one.