“There are 900 restaurants in Koreatown, thirty of which are accessible to Caucasians,” the Pulitzer-prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold told me the first time I met him. That was six years ago, and I had just moved to Los Angeles.
Like most other transplants to the City of Angels--or long time citizens, for that matter--I still use Jonathan’s restaurant reviews as a guide to uncovering this vast metropolis, one meal at a time.
Jonathan likes to say that Los Angeles is a “glittering mosaic” of hundreds of immigrant communities (not least of which are Korean). That’s because LA is a relatively new, even postmodern, city without a strong central historic core, so there’s a decentralizing and almost centrifugal aspect to communal life in this city. And it’s one of the reasons the food is so spectacularly diverse here.
It’s also why I love living in LA.
I studied immigrant restaurant culture for my PhD dissertation, so when I moved here from the east coast I saw my historical research playing out in real time along streets like Jonathan’s beloved Pico Boulevard (I now even live in a house that is a couple doors away from Pico). But even after spending four years as a producer on the documentary about Jonathan and food culture in Los Angeles (“City of Gold,” now streaming), I wanted to know more about his love for the Boulevard. So we took a drive down Pico for Prince Street.
What did we see? One of Jonathan’s favorite places is La Cevicheria, a Guatemalan restaurant specializing in seafood ceviche, often served cocktail style, in a wide-mouthed fluted glass. “Have you tasted bloody clams?” Jonathan wrote in his 2010 review. “Because they really are worth eating — chewy, plump things about the size of a half-dollar, oozing dark juices from inside their rough, crenellated shells, tasting something like shellfish fortified with strong beef bouillon.”
I also love the mint-green marquee outside.
We also passed Papa Cristo's, an alabaster-white Greek restaurant occupying nearly a full city block, with paintings of Papa Chrys himself--handlebar mustache and all--smiling down over the street. What makes this place so special is not only the grilled lamb chops and oozing feta cheese platters, but that you can also buy specialty imported goods like colorful boxes of Italian panettone, giant sacks of basmati rice, and even discs of Ethiopian injera bread, because many Eastern Orthodox Africans worship at the massive Byzantine church across the street.
Besides traditional brick and mortar restaurants, Pico has a stunning array of street food options as well, vending laws be damned. Jonathan pointed out the ladies hawking hand-pounded pupusas out of shopping carts repurposed with kerosene burners, the street taco stands complete with pork al pastor roasting spits (a holdover from Lebanese immigrants to Mexico in the 1930s), and also plenty of burger shacks and strip-mall donut shops.
Fun fact: there are more donut shops in Los Angeles per capita than anywhere else in the country (including Delicious Donuts on Pico and Western). Even more interesting, most of them are run by Cambodian refugee families.
There are more famous streets in Los Angeles like Sunset Boulevard or Rodeo Drive, but, like Jonathan, Pico is where I would rather be.
Before Jonathan Gold became a food critic (the only person ever to win a Pulitzer for it) and the subject of a recent documentary, City of Gold, he was a proofreader, an assistant for the artist Chris Burden, and a cellist in a punk band. One LA street changed his fortunes: Pico Boulevard. Find out how with Lara Rabinovitch on their road trip to reminisce about L.A.’s culinary past, forecast its future, and hear about Breakfast on Pico, his upcoming memoir.
I once passed O.J. Simpson in the hallway of the Las Vegas County Courthouse when he was on trial for theft and assault. When our eyes locked he said, “Love your work, man." It’s a common go-to greeting show folk say to each other that isn’t always genuine but polite nonetheless. My segments for Prince Street are called Love Your Work but the people I interview do work that I actually love and admire.