A tour of cheap eats with food critic Jonathan Gold
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Americans spend on average $151 a week on food, according to poll conducted in July by the folks over at Gallup. That’s a big jump up from $106 — the average back in 1987, the last time they asked Americans that particular question.
But adjusted for inflation, we’re actually spending less money on food than we used to. And while most of us eat at home most of the time, we do enjoy a meal out. And with that in mind, we decided it would be an excellent idea to talk food and money with someone who eats for a living.
Jonathan Gold is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times. A few weeks ago we asked him drive with us around L.A. county — home to more than 20,000 registered food establishments — and show us how to find the best food at the best prices.
Tess Vigeland: Jonathan Gold, welcome to my car.
Jonathan Gold: It’s a nice car.
Vigeland: Thank you very much. I’m really looking forward to our adventure here, trying to see what we have in the way of cheap, but delicious eats around Los Angeles and perhaps what folks can look for in their neck of the woods.
Gold: Right. I’m not sure they’re going to find exactly this in their neck of the woods.
Vigeland: All right. Well, we are still in a car because we are about to go through a drive-thru, but this is no McDonald’s. This is not even In-N-Out.
Gold: We are going to a place called Lee’s Sandwiches, which is a branch of a Vietnamese sandwich chain that serves something called banh mi.
Vigeland: Tell us what’s in it.
Gold: It’s a baguette. There’s actually a neon sign in the window flashing “hot baguettes,” where they come out of the oven — just like the hot donut sign at Krispy Kreme. It is slathered with liver paste, a little bit of mayo. There’s three or four different kinds of charcuterie — usually roast pork, some chashu. And then herbs including cilantro, maybe a couple of Vietnamese herbs, pickled carrots and sliced jalapenos. It’s one of the really great sandwiches.
Vigeland: Well, I’m glad I didn’t eat breakfast today.
Gold: Some people say it’s the one great thing that ever came out of 100 years of French colonialism in Vietnam.
Vigeland: All right. Shall we pull in?
Gold: Let’s do it.
Worker: Welcome to Lee’s Sandwiches. May I take your order, please?
At that point, I let Gold take over the ordering process for me, our production crew, and his 9-year-old son Leon, who joined us for the lunch tour. Gold has been eating his way through Los Angeles since 1985. For this lunch hour, he picked a drive-thru in San Gabriel, a city east of Los Angeles where 60 percent of the population is Asian.
Gold: When people talk to me, they always like to say, ‘OK what’s your favorite drive-thru,’ thinking that I could confess to a longing for Big Mac’s or something. I always tell them about Lee’s Sandwiches because in Los Angeles you can drive through and get a banh mi, you don’t have to get a Filet-O-Fish sandwich.
Vigeland: OK. So while we’re waiting at the window, if you want to eat well, but you don’t want to spend a lot — where do you go? At least here in Los Angeles it seems like the natural place is ethnic food.
Gold: I don’t like to use term “ethnic food” because American food is ethnic food, too. We just never refer to it that way.
Gold: But you want people who are cooking the food that they make themselves. That way they don’t have to pay the processing costs or the big plants. That way, presumably at least, they’re cooking the food that they themselves eat and they’re good judges of and the food’s actually going to be better. You can go to some of the Chinese or Vietnamese or Salvadorian or Cuban or whatever restaurants — not just in L.A., but anywhere in the country — and get a full, delicious meal for less than the price that you pay for a Big Mac and fries.
Vigeland: Why is that?
Gold: It’s because they’re eating food that’s — if not all locally produced, just as close to being locally produced as possible. There’s obviously no waste when you’re going to a fast-food restaurant, but there tends to be no waste here either because they tend to use every part of the animal. And you don’t have the big overhead of the corporate infrastructure to maintain.
And with that, our food came through the window.
Vigeland: This is going to be a little big messy, but don’t worry about it. Mmm. That is delicious. And our producer Joel Patterson is in with us and you want to tell us what we just spent?
Joel Patterson: Four sandwiches, three iced coffees — $16.55.
Vigeland: That is a bargain.
Patterson: That is a bargain.
Time to hit the road again with Jonathan Gold, restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times. This is a guy who gets to dine at L.A.’s finest establishments on someone else’s dime. But he’s even more well-known for his fondness for — and deep knowledge of — the city’s hole-in-the-wall-strip-mall-mom-and-pop eateries. So when we asked him to take us on a gustatory tour of cheap eats in L.A., our second stop was what’s known as the Great Mall of China and a restaurant called Wang Xing Ji.
Gold: Wow, it’s not crowded.
There is only one other Wang Xing Ji restaurant and it’s in the city of Wuxi, outside of Shanghai. The restaurant’s front window screams “juicy dumplings!” And that’s what we’re here for. I asked Gold to order for us again — placing check marks on a printed menu. Gold’s 9-year-old son also knew what to ask for.
Vigeland: So, what’s your favorite dish there, Leon?
Leon: Some of their dumplings are good and they also have good meats.
Vigeland: That all sounds awesome. And Jonathan, I am going to let you order.
Leon: Oh, and they have like this giant dumpling that you put a straw in it since it’s so big.
Vigeland: You put a straw in the dumpling.
Leon: And it has a lot of soup. It’s pretty good.
He wasn’t kidding about the giant dumpling — a beautiful mass of soft dough filled with crab and and pork a golden broth that went far beyond any definition of soup. And it had plenty of company on the table.
Vigeland: All right. So describe for us what we have here.
Gold: This is the spare ribs that are simmered in a dark sauce.
Vigeland: Oh, they’re beautiful.
Gold: That’s cold cucumber with garlic. And over there is the smoked fish — that’s another famous dish from the area.
Vigeland: Oh good lord. I think we’re going to have leftovers. You know, if you decide to go and eat in these kinds of restaurants, how do you know where to start? I mean, there are hundreds to choose from — at least in most of the big cities. If you’re in Minneapolis, how do you know which Somali restaurant to go to?
Gold: If I go to a city I haven’t been to before, I’ll try to triangulate I guess. I’ll look at the reviews from the local papers and I’ll look and see what kind of online things there are. Not that I necessarily will trust a single review from Chowhound or Yelp or even a predominance of opinion one way or another on Chowhound or Yelp, but it will give you some idea of what they have.
Vigeland: So you actually read those sites?
Gold: I look at them. It’s hard not to. The one great thing about Yelp — and I’m not a great lover of the site — but the one great thing about it is that probably for the first time ever, if you’re going to, say, a Taiwanese restaurant in Hacienda Heights that specializes in a certain kind of noodles and has a teenage clientele of Chinese, then you can actually read the opinions of Taiwanese-American teenagers as opposed to having somebody like me — a middle-aged white guy — going in and looking at the food from a completely different perspective. And Yelp also has this odd feature where you get like a gold star for “first to review.” And because you get a gold star for first to review, you find people going to sort of every place that might possibly serve food.
Vigeland: Because they want the gold star?
Gold: Because they want the gold star. They may not have any idea of what they’re eating or why they’re eating it, but the fact that they’re there — they’re putting something of their impressions online — can give somebody who’s looking for directions maybe a clue that there’s something there.
Vigeland: I know you already have a Pulitzer Prize, but I certainly hope you have a few gold stars on Yelp.
Gold: Oh. If I did, I wouldn’t tell you.
We ate our way through an extraordinary table full of food. The final bill was a little over a hundred bucks, so about $20 per person. More than we paid for banh mi at the drive-thru, but we also had a ton of food left over — which prompted this bit of advice from our critic:
Gold: When you’re taking home leftovers from restaurants, that’s something you always have to ask yourself: Am I going to be pleased to see this in tomorrow morning when I’m taking out my eggs for breakfast? If the answer is no, leave it.
Unfortunately we did leave it. In the car. On a 98-degree day while we drove around the city. We did not have it for breakfast the next day.
And now to our final installment of holy-cow-amazing-delicious-cheap-eats with Jonathan Gold, restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times. We spent a couple of hours with him a few weeks back driving around the eastern portion of L.A. County for the most delicious and affordable roving lunch I’ve ever had. We visited a drive-thru that serves Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and then a soup dumpling house. And after that, where else? A truck.
Vigeland: OK, now we have moved on. Tell us what neighborhood we’re in.
Gold: We are in Boyle Heights, which is a section of East Los Angeles, or the east side of Los Angeles.
Vigeland: OK. We are about to eat at part of a phenomenon that really hit it big two, three years ago. This is basically a culture in Los Angeles.
Gold: You have the idea of trucks or lunch trucks. There’s the new wave of lunch trucks, of course. The places like Kogi or the Lobsta Truck, where you go and have fairly elaborate “gourmet lunches,” places that accept credit cards (some of them), places that…
Vigeland: But these taco trucks have been here way longer than that?
Gold: Yeah. These are the luncheros, a phenomenon that started in Los Angeles in the ’60s, spread across Mexico and has been well-established in Los Angeles, obviously, for a very long time. This truck here, Mariscos Jalisco, is notable for a few reasons. One, at the L.A. Street Food Fest, it tends to win almost every one it enters. This truck has been here, almost parked in the same spot, for 20 years. The guy who owns it lives in the housing project across the street. He has a couple of different meat tacos, but the thing that almost everybody gets is his specialty — which is deep-fried tacos filled with shrimp.
Vigeland: If we must.
Gold: I know I’m imposing on you a little bit.
Vigeland: You are, really. I’m only doing this for the story.
Yes, you heard that right — deep-fried shrimp tacos.
Vigeland: So two cokes, two waters, five tacos. Well what do you make of the whole truck phenomenon, is that a passing fad?
Gold: The truck phenomenon is here to stay, I think. The reason I like it is because it’s entry-level capitalism; it’s an incubator cuisine. So if you go into a truck and you have a really great idea and it catches on, the first thing you get is gigantic lines and you’re able to make money that way. If it ends up being really popular, then you can open up a restaurant or any number of restaurants because you’ve already developed your concept.
Vigeland: Thank you. Oh, this looks divine.
Gold: Pardon my crunching, these are hard to resist.
Vigeland: So given your speciality — and this is a lot of what you write about — are you just philosophically opposed to paying a lot for a meal?
Gold: Of course not. I love extremely expensive food. To tell the truth, there is an immense amount of pleasure to be gotten from a $500 seafood meal at Providence and there’s an amazing amount of pleasure to be gotten from a $1.50 taco in East Los Angeles.
Vigeland: And then are plenty of places where you have to pay a lot of money where you don’t get that pleasure at all.
Gold: No. Back when I was a music writer, I was talking to this singer named Ian MacKaye who was in a band called Fugazi — still is. I was asking him why he only charged $5 admission to his concerts and he said that it’s because it gave him the freedom to be who he was. He couldn’t understand why people would pay $150 to go to the opera and if the opera was terrible, they weren’t outside with pitchforks and torches waiting to light up the tenor.
It’s the same way with restaurants. If you pay $400 for a meal, that meal had better be perfect in every single way. If you’re paying $1.50 for a meal, it probably has more of a connection to the person who is cooking it, it has more of a connection to the people who are eating it. And what might be considered privation — which is to say sitting here on this squat wall in East Los Angeles — actually becomes a feature instead of a bug. It becomes something that’s delightful. We’re liking being out here in the shade of the Ficus trees.
Vigeland: Well Jonathan Gold, this has been an extraordinary tour. I thank you for joining us at this lunch hour.
Gold: It’s been a pleasure.
Vigeland: Bon appetit!
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