Jonathan Gold solidified O.C.’s culinary reputation by naming Taco Maria Restaurant of the Year

Whether writing about hip-hop or hotcakes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold viewed the world as only a Los Angeles native could — as a vast, frenzied and brilliant display of what happens when people and their cultures collide.

In his columns at LA Weekly, Gourmet and, most recently, at the L.A. Times, Gold showed (always with respect and an eye for history) that L.A. was best understood not only through its food, but through the people who make it, those living and surviving in a next-era global city that is constantly evolving with each immigration wave, each economic disrupter, each new generation born into its sprawling tangle of interconnected neighborhoods.

Gold passed away unexpectedly from pancreatic cancer last weekend, and the absence of L.A.’s first and most prolific culinary champion leaves a gaping hole in the narrative of an immensely diverse place that continues to be misunderstood by outsiders (ahem, New York Times, ahem).

In the days following his death, numerous essays and thoughtful remembrances from nearly every possible angle were published by writers who either knew Gold, worked with him or worshipped him. They all smartly pointed to the importance of his egalitarian outlook on culture, the inspiration his words gave to the oft-forgotten communities he covered and the lasting influence his dulcet second-person prose has had on food journalism at large, which in the not-too-distant past measured all dining experiences against the rarified white-tablecloth-sommelier-French-style-tasting-menu experience.

But Gold’s absence won’t only be felt in L.A.

As part of his expanding definition of “Los Angeles,” he was slowly beginning to incorporate Orange County, itself a misunderstood smattering of mutating suburbs that is best viewed through the food and people of its established and swelling immigrant communities.

Though it caused some confusion among readers who wondered how something in Orange County could be considered an L.A. icon, his annual 101 Best Restaurants list increasingly included a handful of local standouts, from Brodard Chateau to Playground to Irenia to Garlic & Chives. The mentions also confused some people here in O.C. who had convinced themselves that the county’s greatest contribution to the national restaurant scene was the fine-dining, celebrity-chef offerings at its numerous upscale resorts.

Gold put all that to rest and solidified O.C.’s true importance to the food in this region in May by naming Costa Mesa’s Taco Maria the Times’ 2018 Restaurant of the Year.

“The restaurant, which serves tasting menus of [Carlos] Salgado’s Mexican-influenced cooking, is at the center of a culinary movement that seems to grow in importance each year,” Gold wrote two months ago after giving Salgado the award at the L.A. Times Food Bowl. “By regarding tortillas with a seriousness familiar to any fanatical French baker, by using perfect seasonal produce and by treating regional Mexican dishes with both imagination and respect, Salgado has propelled California-Mexican cooking into the jet stream of abstracted modernist cuisine.”

Of course, he is right on all counts. But what he didn’t say is that Taco Maria (like Irenia and Playground and so many others) could have only come out of Orange County, which has remained out of L.A.’s culinary spotlight just long enough to encourage an entire generation of trained young chefs to return home and cook here. There is much more where Taco Maria came from and the target audience is not people who are willing to drive down from L.A. to eat it.

Rumor is that Gold only came to O.C. when something came highly recommended by a friend or scout. What else would “The Belly of Los Angeles” have discovered about the food scene here if he spent his days and nights criss-crossing the freeways in his signature beat-up pickup truck like he was known to do in L.A., moving from the French cuisine in Newport Beach to the kabobs and labneh of Anaheim to the Chinese restaurants of Irvine, eating dozens of meals in a single day?

Would he have driven through strip malls and braved food hall crowds to sort through all that is new and classic here? Would he have seen parallels between the O.C. of now and the L.A. of his early career, two places teeming with community and culture that you could easily eat your way through, if only you knew where to look?

Would he have felt compelled, as he did with L.A., to treat O.C. as a singular culinary place, one indelibly connected to the metropolis above, the empire farther inland and the international border below?

When Gold first started writing about food in Los Angeles in the 1980s, the city was still trying to find ways to be proud of its unorthodoxy. If the city is not the vapid, soulless home of entertainment industry churn (as all the clichés say), then what, exactly is it? Gold’s writing not only told others how to view L.A., it told Angelenos how to view themselves.

“I am trying to democratize food and trying to get people to live in the entire city of Los Angeles,” Gold is quoted as saying. “I’m trying to get people to be less afraid of their neighbors.”

It’s a lesson Orange County could benefit from. If O.C. is not the uninspired suburban sprawl and chain restaurants frequented by soccer moms and church dads (as all the clichés say), then what, exactly, is it? Gold may not have had a chance to tell others how to view Orange County as the next-era global metropolis it is, but he did tell us how we can view ourselves — as a vast, frenzied and brilliant display of what happens when people and their cultures collide.

Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.