diaCRITIC Cam Vu possesses F*bomb finesse! Even while falling in 5-inch platforms! All to bring to you a review of Vietnamese eats from this year’s Los Angeles food extravaganza, The Jonathan Gold Standard. There the offerings from The Good Girl Dinette and STREET demonstrated Vietnamese cuisine’s continued catapult into the fusion/hybrid world of culinary identity transformation, leading Cam Vu to wonder, “How would the ‘world’ make bánh xèo?”
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One of the greatest perks of living in Los Angeles is that we have access, not just to the best restaurants, ingredients, and culinary magicians around, but we have the labor of dedicated food die-hards (I’ll resist the term “foodie” for now) to guide us into food delirium. We have food bloggers, yelpers, culinary students, restaurateur hopefuls, those
annoying adorable diners with their flashing camera phones picking apart every course and combo. But the man who may very well be deemed the premiere lothario of food appreciation is LA’s very own Jonathan Gold, food critic extraordinaire who writes for the LA Weekly and has his own KCRW food program.
Gold is esteemed as the only food critic/writer to have won a Pulitzer Prize for his dexterity in pairing the food experience with its best accompanying word. And his hungry fans, fanning all over the city to search out his latest noteworthy find, are indebted to his distinguishing tastes and gusto for palate hyperbole. To read a Gold review is akin to being transported into the sizzling back rooms of small taco stands, or to feel one’s tongue viscerally burning with the oily fire of a vivid Szechuan dish. Szechuan dishes are hot, and in Gold’s estimation, are like a “flaming rabbit punch to the base of your skull.” What’s a flaming rabbit punch and where do I get me some of that?
For the past three years Gold has hosted “The Jonathan Gold Standard,” a robust collection of his favorite food vendors in the city, corralled together into an eater’s dream swap meet. If you’re a fan of Top Chef and have envied the crowds that the contestants scurry to serve, you must find your way to the Gold Standard. Its premise is not unlike that, except here no fabulous $10,000 prizes or glamorous Padma Lakshmi—although Jonathan Gold did look fetching preening about in his sport coat. Held for its third year on March 6, 2011, at the Petersen Automotive Museum along Museum Row, the Gold Standard featured 40 of Gold’s favorite restaurants including Jar, AOC, Jitlada, The Foundry, Mozza, Slaw Dogs, Little Dom’s, along with a host of equally impressive others. And did I mention there was a whole aisle dedicated to wines and spirits of the region? For $60 a ticket (a portion of which went to support Heal the Bay), I arrived with a friend and for just over 3 hours we feasted on all the goodies that Gold had lovingly brought together.
My “review” as it were includes Vietnamese cuisine’s two representations at this year’s Gold Standard. Both examples showcase the ways in which Vietnamese cuisine is being catapulted into the fusion/hybrid world of culinary identity transformation. The stall run by The Good Girl Dinette (110 N. Ave. 56, Highland Park) offered a ground pork serving on top of white rice. It was delish! I got a douse of freshly ground pepper with some perfectly cooked rice underneath a mound of tender pork. With a little help from Google, I found out that Good Girl Dinette is run by the same chef who opened The Blue Hen, another Vietnamese themed restaurant in Eagle Rock. The Good Girl Dinette, though, focuses on the paradigmatic diner experience, so ratchet up the comfort food quotient and throw a side of biscuits under that cà ri.
A few stalls down I found myself standing in front of Susan Feniger’s STREET restaurant (742 N. Highland Ave, Los Angeles), with the lovely Ms. Feniger holding court. I nearly fell over myself. (I blamed it on the cavalcade of diners filing through, the 5 inch platforms I had on—a foodie [oh well, there goes the F*bomb] must be able to scope out the food beacons from on high– and ok, maybe there was a glass of wine in my hand). I rooted for Feniger on “Top Chef Masters” and have dined at her restaurant during DineLA; the kaya toast is a must! To my horror, she had seen me nearly topple and worriedly asked if I was ok. And then I caught her casting a curious look at that pesky glass of wine after all, but I digress. I voted against introducing myself right at that moment, ducked back into the crowd, and only later managed to anonymously swipe a serving of their offering. So the diaCRITIC name is still in good standing!
STREET is an “upscale take on cultural cuisine,” think $16 for a bowl of noodles remotely reminiscent of phở and the like. On this particular day, Feniger’s team put out a “Vietnamese crepe,” aka bánh xèo, for sampling which already made me a little weary. It’s hard to serve this dish for a mass crowd, the “crepe” needs to be crispy and hot and made to order. I cringed at the thought of eating it cut into uniformly apportioned neatly trimmed sections with string beans(?!) inside and nary a mung bean to be found. But I was pleasantly surprised, this is an interpretation after all. How would the “world” make bánh xèo? Apparently with string bean, which in this case was cooked well and still crunchy. I tasted the distinct flavor of nước mắm pha already coating the crepe. But I would contend that what makes bánh xèo so damn good is that rascally yellow bánh solution which should neither be made too runny nor too starchy. And this day’s interpretation ran overly starchy for this diner’s tastes. But I still love you Ms. Feniger and I promise you I will wear those 5-inch heels with more diner finesse and confidence in the future.
I am no food writing or reviewing master, I am merely a tastes-good pleasure seeker. And also one who knows when she is being shown a really good time. The Gold Standard is a fantastic opportunity to take advantage of the talents of LA’s best food cultural thinkers and shakers all under the master guiding hand of Jonathan Gold. The atmosphere was one filled with happy gastronomists, bloggers with their Canons and Nikons and smartphones, Gold with his trusty camera crew milling around, bread queen Nancy Silverton in her apron standing in line for a cocktail with the rest of us imbibers, Ilan Hall, winner of Top Chef season 2 manning his station for The Gorbals restaurant (his fried chicken livers was a delight!), and general merriment. At one point, maybe two hours into the event my companion and I took a requisite too-full to breathe break and sat on the rooftop of the Petersen Automotive Museum, a pack of other like-minded and distended belly diners were lined up along the rooftop with us. No one wanted to leave; maybe we could just take a reprieve and then make one final push. I imagine in the coming years this event is going to get bigger, the lines more trenchant, the likelihood of an actual spill in heels more realistic. As it was, I felt like I had stumbled into some world I had drummed up in a cross-cultural Thanksgiving dream gone wild. But we are not all made the same after all. While my friend was mesmerized by the car show in the museum and wanted to spend her time looking at a 19seventysomething Fiatta-this-that-or-the-other, I wanted to run back for one more serving of Providence’s pineapple jelly skewer confection before the dream evaporated, the heel broke, or the zipper gave out.
I guess that I am learning, in my love of all things related to food, that I don’t necessarily have to eat everything I love all at one time. But sometimes your dreams, as ridiculous as they may seem, do actually come true.
Thank you Mr. Gold!
— Cam Vu earned her doctorate in American Studies and Ethnicity at USC where she focused on cultural work in the Vietnamese diaspora. Her book project focuses on affects in diasporic communities. Among other things, she loves to write about food.
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