Man with the golden palate

Circling Valley Boulevard in Alhambra, lost in suffocating, 100-degree heat, I'm wondering: What could possibly justify leaving my air-conditioned office to stumble around this too-familiar Southern California bleakscape of tire outlets, big box stores, nail parlors and fast-food joints?

A few minutes later, I've finally limped into 101 Noodle Express, and the answer is at hand. It's the restaurant's beef roll, something like a crispy Chinese pancake, rolled around thin layers of savory beef and topped with a homemade bean sauce.

"It's just un-freakin'-believable how good it is," says Jonathan Gold, clearly satisfied at enlisting me, the latest in the battalions of Angelenos he has coaxed out of their geographic and culinary comfort zones for an encounter with the new and often sublime.

It seemed like a fortuitous time to finally meet the patron saint of the porno burrito and pig-part salads, what with last week's publication of Gold's annual list of "99 Essential L.A. Restaurants," and considering the foreboding rumors that he might be giving up his longtime perch as restaurant critic at the L.A. Weekly.

Friends told me Gold, 49, clearly felt unsettled when corporate bosses in Phoenix forced the departure this spring of his wife, Laurie Ochoa, as editor of the Weekly. Gold had shown some interest in taking the crown posting of the food world -- as chief restaurant critic for the New York Times.

But the Times announced last month that its culture editor, Sam Sifton, would take over for Frank Bruni, leaving Gold at the Weekly and preserving one of our city's most spirited and distinctive journalistic voices. Gold said he has no immediate plans to leave the Weekly but wouldn't talk about it in detail.

As we waded into a late lunch that included the Shandong-style beef roll, steamed pork dumplings and a salad of tofu, slivered pork ear and tripe, it was hard to conceive that Gold had any less zeal then he did as a 20-something copy editor who felt compelled to eat his way down Pico Boulevard -- hitting virtually every restaurant for miles.

"Every time I walk into a new restaurant, it's like a theater critic walking into a new show," Gold said. "The curtain opens and there's the chance there will be something new that will just knock you back. It happens enough of the time, it's still great."

Gold grew up on the Westside. But not every kid at Beverly Hills High School asked for a birthday party at a Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park.

Anyone who has read Gold during his time at the Weekly or, previously, at the L.A. Times or Gourmet magazine, knows how preoccupied he is with sense of place.

Evoking a new Vietnamese pho enclave in South El Monte, he writes: "When the wind is right, you can imagine that the fumes from the muffler repair shops have overtones of fish sauce and cinnamon." He appreciates Euro Pane Bakery in Pasadena as much for its "magnificent" croissants as for an ambience of a "certain sort of society, the Caltech professors, theology students and writers who worship at the twin altars of caffeine and conversation."

When the riots ended in 1992, Gold set about reviewing restaurants in South Los Angeles, an invitation to Angelenos to get reacquainted in the most uneasy section of the city.

"This may sound weird, but one of the things that's important to me is to have people not be afraid of their neighbors," Gold told me.

Five years ago, Ochoa came up with the idea of compiling such observations and Gold's take on emblematic local dining into the "99 Essential L.A. Restaurants" issue.

The critic said he wants listees that range from steakhouses to gelaterias to hot dog carts to offer "damn good food and also an experience of something that captures the imagination of Los Angeles."

Gold will hit eight to 10 restaurants a week but still suffer the sneaking feeling that "I'm not behind on my writing, I'm behind on my eating."

After all that consumption, Gold labels 2009 "a really good year for restaurants, a weirdly good year" considering the economy.

Although he shies away from the word "trend," Gold notes that both ingredients and restaurants seemed more transient in 2009.

A continuing rush toward fresh foods and farmers market shopping has made menus ever more malleable. And crack chefs -- less rooted to one particular kitchen -- often moved their meals via cart, trucks or borrowed space.

Thus, Gold celebrates Ludo Bites and the transient kitchen of its chef Ludovic Lefebvre, the Let's Be Frank hot dog truck and Kogi, a troika of catering trucks that shuttle Korean barbecue around the city as Twittering scenesters give chase.

Gold pegs this as "the exultation of guerrilla cuisine."

Food people follow his picks closely but he will hear only in a roundabout way from displeased owners or chefs who have been dropped from the list.

This year, brief heartache may have struck principals at Akasha, Alcazar, Angeli, Animal and Anisette. They were dropped out of the Weekly in print (though they appear online) because of a production error.

Some foodies I talked to wondered if Gold, since winning the Pulitzer Prize, could maintain the relative anonymity that many food critics consider a professional necessity, lest they be treated to extra attention and dishes not offered ordinary diners.

With his puffy cheeks, jowls and bulging eyes, surrounded by a corona of stringy reddish gray hair, Gold cuts a distinctive figure. He concedes he's become somewhat more recognizable post-Pulitzer.

But he thinks that profile doesn't make him that much different from most big city restaurant reviewers. "Believe me, they know when the critic is there," he said. "They know. That's the way it is."

Not that the connection is always clear from the get-go. Jazz Singsanong, one of the family owners of Hollywood Thai mecca Jitlada, said she didn't read enough in English to have much idea who Gold was, until one of his friends pointed him out one night.

She said that once the Weekly writer raved about Jitlada, a host of other critics followed, helping make her family-owned restaurant a sensation.

Singsanong marvels that Gold can sniff out most of the ingredients in her complex dishes and even sussed out the secret to her acclaimed coffee, which no other outsider could discern.

"I respect him for coming in and testing food here and really knowing his thing," Singsanong said in lilting, thickly accented English. "So I bow my head to him. He is real man in the world."

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james.rainey@latimes.com

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