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Jonathan Gold Helped Me Fall in Love With My Own City

August 3, 2018 by Wilder Shaw
Jonathan Gold mural

A Jonathan Gold mural by artist Jonas Never outside of Margo’s in Santa Monica.

The first time I spoke to him, we were next to each other at a red light at the corner of Los Feliz and Griffith Park Blvd. The windows of his green Dodge Ram were rolled down. I was starstruck, but I had to say something. Finally I blurted out, “Hi, I don’t mean to bother you, but I’m trying to be a food writer, and I’m just really inspired by what you do.”

But let’s go back a bit.

I was born in the Valley. As a child of divorce, I split time with my mom in Van Nuys and my dad in Studio City. I went to elementary school in Sherman Oaks, and I ate at Carney’s. I went to middle school in North Hollywood, and I ate at Henry’s Tacos. I went to high school in Reseda, and I ate at Domingo’s Italian Deli.

When you grow up in Los Angeles, everybody you know is also from here. It’s not weird to meet a ton of native Angelenos. But when you live here as an adult, it’s a much different story. Childhood friends move on, transplants take their place. Two out of every three people you encounter will call you a “unicorn” simply because you were born within the county limits.

For awhile it seemed like I might be one of the many who moved on. Just another ex-Angeleno. San Francisco was my college town. As a wide-eyed 18 year-old in a bustling new city (a city not yet overrun by tech bros), I fell head-over-heels in love.

But San Francisco never quite reciprocated the way I hoped it would. “Beat L.A.”, the Bay Area’s most heartfelt and vitriolic sports motto, was baked into the opinion of pretty much everyone I met. That viewpoint of Los Angeles infected me. It followed me home after I graduated. It followed me into my first big kid startup job. Even as I was making a life for myself in L.A., I wasn’t even sure if I liked living here.

But things change, as they so often do, over a great meal and a chance encounter.

I was at Mom’s Bar-B-Q, a hole-in-the-wall in Valley Glen owned and operated by Genevia Fontenette, a Louisiana import with an intimate knowledge of southern cooking. Mom’s offers all the BBQ basics: pork ribs, beef ribs, rib tips, any of which comes with ample sides of potato salad or collard greens or black-eyed peas. Mostly, however, you come here for the fried catfish, which in my humble opinion is better than anywhere else in the city — crunchy, salty, briney off the blocks but with a sweet, clean finish that never makes you look back.

In between nibbles of catfish I chatted with a stranger who told me it was his first time there. He’d come on a recommendation from Jonathan Gold. I knew the name, but “L.A. Times Restaurant critic” was more or less the extent of my knowledge of the man. Still, the fact that he was recommending Mom’s, that told me something.

I went home and researched more of Gold’s work. As I dove deeper and deeper into his old reviews I realized that while he was leagues above me in talent and knowledge, we did have one thing in common — we loved food, especially from places that don’t normally get much fanfare or buzz. I cherished the idea of a restaurants critic who was just as passionate about tiny little spots as he was about fine dining. It was simply something I had never heard of before.

Inspired by his writing, I embarked on food finding missions of my own. The more places I tried, the more I yearned to find new flavors and experiences. It was like being introduced to my own city, for the second time, for the first time.

I followed him to more Valley strip mall haunts. I learned new spots like Kobee Factory, and confirmed suspicions of greatness from places I already loved, like Go’s Mart and Tarzana Armenian Deli. I upped my game, driving to Boyle Heights for Mariscos Jalisco, and Artesia for Rajdhani. I found myself pulling over while driving — what’s that place, a Peruvian sandwich spot? — or looking at Yelp photos of menus. I tried Ethiopian food, and Punjabi food, and Cambodian food, and so many other things I’d never eaten, experiencing Ratatouille moment after Ratatouille moment, when everything else fades out, and all you can feel are the wonderful new flavors you’re experiencing for the first time. Food became my life.

Flash forward a few years and I was working in TV, sort of floating through life, aimless, not sure of what I was doing. The only thing I really knew was that I loved to write and I loved to eat. And it seemed like this trail of Gold must be leading somewhere.

Why not write about food, right? I already had 18 years worth of knowledge, plus everything I had discovered in the years after college. In 2014 I had my first piece of food writing published. I haven’t looked back.

Since that day at Mom’s, there’s never been a time when I didn’t have a list of restaurants to try. The “Beat L.A.” mentality that New York, Northern California, Miami, and so many other places cling to has been completely deleted from my head. I love this city. I love its food. I always did, but Jonathan Gold brought that to the surface for me. He nudged me towards my path. He showed me what I want out of my life. He made me fall in love with the place I was born. I owe him for that.

I really can’t say anything about the Belly of Los Angeles that every other food writer hasn’t mentioned in the countless, touching eulogies that have been published — but I can say what he meant to me. He changed the way I looked at my city, and by proxy, the way I look at my life. I firmly believe that to eat another culture’s food is to grow as a person. To search out adventure and push yourself out of your comfort zone is to grow as a person. To open yourself up to the new, unexpected, and exciting, is to grow as a person. I like to think that I do these things.

So there we were, at the intersection of Los Feliz and Griffith Park. Him the savant of culture and food. Me the fanboy. “Hi, I don’t mean to bother you, but I’m trying to be a food writer, and I’m just really inspired by what you do.”

His mouth drifted into an odd smile and then he looked at me, “If you eat food and you write about it, you are a food writer.”

The light turned green and we went on our way.


A Go Fund Me campaign has been set up for Jonathan Gold’s family in the aftermath of his sudden passing. You can go here if you would like to support.

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Things To Do

Fun Things To Do in Costa Mesa on an Excursion from Los Angeles

January 10, 2018 by Wilder Shaw

As a diehard angeleno I’ve always sort of written Orange County off as a nearby destination for anything besides (maybe) Disneyland. People speak of other things existing there, but like, is that actually true? 

Well, the folks who run Travel Costa Mesa had a challenge for me: Come to their city for a one day/night stay and provide some honest feedback about my experience.

The burning question: Would this hardboiled citizen of Los Angeles soften his cemented feelings about The OC? Let’s find out.

Image via Travel Costa Mesa

How I got Down there: The Tesloop

A major reason I’ve avoided taking a staycation in Costa Mesa (or all of Orange County for that matter) is that I’ve always thought driving down is a pain. And since I’m a big drinker, driving my own car is just never a good idea. But Ubers and Lyfts get very pricey at that mileage.

Lucky for me, part of my invite was to ride in a Tesla, courtesy of Tesloop, which is a thing.

Our New Year's Resolution? Continue to make mobility amazing! #MotivationMonday

A post shared by Tesloop (@tesloop) on

If you’re not familiar with this service, it’s something you need to check out. It’s basically a fleet of Tesla X SUVs that shuttle you from L.A. to San Diego for surprisingly reasonable rates (you can get a trip to SD for as little as $29). You book a seat with prices varying depending on where you sit in the car (AKA, shotgun is a little more costly).

The other thing about Tesloop is that most of these cars are enabled with AI which means that they drive themselves. You’ll have a driver there to make sure it all goes according to plan and the robots don’t take over and kidnap you, but it’s actually extremely smooth and not as terrifying as I expected. The Teslas themselves are equipped with WiFi, complimentary snacks, comfy seats, and tons of legroom. So yeah, it’s much easier to get down there than I expected.

The Game Plan

So how do you fill a day/night/morning-after in Costa Mesa? I hit close to a dozen spots in a 24-hour whirlwind tour. Here’s how it went down.

10 a.m — Hop into a robot sled and head down south

Once you figure out which Tesloop pickup is best for you then you meet your “pilot” (they call them pilots for some reason) and enjoy your trip — at least, as much as you can while you’re praying that it won’t throw itself into oncoming traffic. I’m fascinated (read: terrified) of AI in general so I had lots of questions about how the car operates. Eight cameras and twelve sensors surround the Tesla X, providing 360 degree views around the car. The entire system is designed to read and recognize the lanes, meaning it will drive in the direct center for the most part.

How it knows when the lines are faded or gone, I have no idea. It’s surprisingly responsive, and (luckily for my nerves) requires the driver to have their hands on the wheel at all times. If the driver’s hands aren’t present, it will move all the way across the freeway until it finds a shoulder or some other place to park, shut down the entire car, and alert Tesla HQ. Sounds like a good idea, unless you’re me and all you heard was “the car has the ability to stop you from controlling it and going literally wherever it wants on the road”. Artificial Intelligence is insane.

The car itself is nice, there’s no way about it. It’s entirely touchscreen operated on a screen so huge you legitimately feel like you’re flying in a spaceship. To make a long story short, Tesloop is rad and I definitely recommend you take it.

Barely Forge interior. Image via Travel Costa Mesa

noon — Discover why people say Orange County has such great beer

You probably already know that Anaheim is crushing it on the beer front, but Costa Mesa is starting to make their mark as well — Barley Forge Brewing Co. (which just won OC Weekly’s “Best Brewery”) is right in the center of the action and brewing some of the tastiest beers for miles. Their tap room is big and spacious, so grab some friends and sip on a few great beers, especially the “Patsy” coconut stout & the “A Scanner Tartly” sour with cherries. Not enough beer for you? Gunwhale Ales is brand spankin’ new and just across the street, so give them a look.

2 p.m. — Grub up / Caffeine up / Shop up

Just around the corner you’ll find a bunch of things that can easily fill the bulk of your day. Start off at The LAB, a sort of “anti-mall” outdoor shopping space. If you’re like me and gigantic malls give you anxiety, this extremely chill open-air space will be exactly what you want. Habana, a chic Cuban spot, has been the cornerstone of the mall since its inception 25 years ago and definitely where you’ll want to have some lunch (share a bunch of stuff– the food is great).

Want an after-lunch cocktail? Ruin Bar is right next door and offers some inventive Soju cocktails and a solid beer list. Sleepy from too many daytime drinks? Nook Coffee is doing artisanal coffee on the cheap. Cuban food not overdone and trendy enough for you? Calipoke is doing poke bowls. The LAB has you pretty much covered.

If you’re looking to stock up on any number of very rad things, Seed Market is where you want to be, and only a short walk from The LAB. You’ll find a ton of boutique and artisanal items at this indoor market, especially outdoorsy/adventure-type stuff. It’s absolutely worth a look.

5 p.m. — Grab some pre-dinner drinks

If you’re a wine person, Wine Lab is also a short walk and is sure to satisfy all your vino needs. Water Grill also has a spot in South Coast Plaza, so if draft beer and oysters on the half shell are more your speed you will be just fine.

The Fresh Uni at Vaca. Image via Travel Costa Mesa

7 p.m. — Rally the finest crew you have and eat at Vaca

Top Chef finalist Amar Santana is crushing it at Vaca with tapas and shared plates, so you’ll definitely want your fiercest eating crew at your side. The erizos con huevo (fresh uni, scrambled eggs, and trout roe) will jump off the menu as an obvious choice. Order it. The less obvious, though, is Vaca’s canelon de pollo ahumado (smoked chicken cannelloni, foie gras sauce, and sherry reduction), which is legitimately one of the tastiest things I’ve ever eaten.

9 p.m. — Imbibe a bit more

Mesa is a popular local hang, featuring a loungey, live-music vibe (and if you’re somehow still hungry from Vaca, they have bites at the ready). It can get pretty lively, so if you’re looking for a more relaxed vibe, head over to Boathouse Collective. The place is a boathouse-turned-lounge with much more chill drinks and live music. Either way, the nightlife is rip roarin’ ready for you.

Fried chicken sandwich at the Crack Shack. Photo by Wilder Shaw

The Morning After — Brunch at The Crack Shack Before Heading Home

If you did as much damage as I did, you’ll be in need of a nice hearty brunch. The Crack Shack is the fried chicken haven you crave for such an occasion. They’re doing a ton of inventive things (like matzoh ball pozole and chicken sausage breakfast sandwiches) as well as some straight up rockstar fried chicken sandwiches. The “Coop Deville” (fried chicken, pickled fresno chilies, lime mayo, and napa cabbage on brioche) is nothing short of a grand slam.

Final Thoughts

The biggest surprise about this entire experience was not just that I very easily filled up my day, but rather that I found myself wishing I had left L.A. earlier so I would have more time. I packed a day full of stuff in Costa Mesa extremely easily. It’s truly the overnight destination they’re presenting themselves as, and I highly recommend you jump in a robot car and slide on down there to see (and taste) it for yourself.

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Lifestyle

My Three Glorious Days at an Adults Only Summer Camp Near Los Angeles

August 18, 2017 by Wilder Shaw

Nostalgia never really goes out of style, does it? Just take a look at today’s entertainment landscape. Reboots of popular movies and shows? Yup. Remaking old video games? Sure, those make money. A summer camp specifically designed for adults? Wait… that’s thing? Well, as long as there are bunkbeds… and alcohol.

Thankfully Camp No Counselors brings both in spades.

Camp No Counselors, which you may already know if you watch Shark Tank, is a weekend-long summer camp for grown ups. It’s basically everything you remember from camp as a kid—sports, climbing, swimming, games—plus an open bar and themed dance parties at night.

Earlier this summer I attended a preview edition of the Los Angeles version of the camp, and in tribute to my camp experiences of yesteryear, I wrote daily letters home to my parents because, well, who else was I going to write?

Hopefully you enjoy the letters as much as I enjoyed the camp.

Thursday

Post arrival camp meet-up

Dear Mom & Dad,

The first day of camp is always a little weird. Fortunately there’s plenty of beer.

After a long bus ride packed with 30 racks and anticipation, we arrived at CNC, and happy hour was already in full-swing.

Campers congregated near the pool, sizing each other up like teenagers at junior prom. I surveyed the group. Would I find a bestie this weekend? Would I find love? Was I going to be the guy everyone thought smelled funny? Thankfully this one dude had that spot locked down.

Eventually the ice broke. More liquor was consumed. I lectured a guy who told me Shake Shack was better than In-N-Out. We hung by the campfire. Before long it was time to hit the hay.

I’m in Bunk Five (look alive!), and what a cheesy 80’s coming-of-age-summer-camp bunch we are. For real, you would not believe how much this one guy looks just like Anthony Michael Hall.

Our group seems solid- which is good because I’m going to be stuck here for the next few days having either the best or worst time of my life. Fingers crossed for the former.

In any case, I’ll keep this note short and sweet. The butterflies in my stomach are tingling. Well, either butterflies, or the 37 shots of tequila I just took. Let’s go with butterflies.

Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.

Your son,
Wilder

Friday

It’s amazing how quickly you make friends at summer camp

Dear Mom & Dad,

There’s so much to do here! Hiking! Yoga! Climbing! Other things!

Dodgeball was my first move of the day. Here’s the thing about dodgeball… it’s harder than I remember it. Or at least way more intense. One guy on the opposing team was completely bananas. You know, the sort of bro who thinks even the most casual group competition requires the intensity of the NBA Finals (in fact, let’s just call him Johnny Bananas). Bananas didn’t  just throw dodge balls, he hurled bolts of lightning across the court with no regard for human life. This was not my speed.

Johnny Bananas is a stone killer

I decided to get away from the banana fury and head to archery. This I was much better at. You should have seen me, mom! I was a regular Katniss Everdeen out there! I was just like Merida of DunBroch; a real Susan Pevensie (maybe Legolas or Robin Hood are better examples for a dude, but whatever, you get the point).

As we cruised through the rest of the day, what was previously a group of strangers grew closer. Grubbing down together in the dining hall was a big relationship builder — and believe it or not, the food is actually good! At one point I locked eyes with Bananas and I thought he was going to incinerate me with his laser eyes right there on the spot.

Thankfully other than JB everyone is super friendly. One of our Bunk Fivers is a Camp No Counselors veteran — let’s just call her MVP — and she’s agreed to to give our group a leg up when we all participate in the team competitions tomorrow.

As for today… after hours of alternating between camp games and food consumption, we geared up the first party of the weekend: PAJAMA PARTY. People were wearing all the best PJs: onesies, sweatpants, a gigantic, murderous-looking chipmunk suit. You know, the classics.

This is not scary at all

There was a DJ. There was booze. There were games. Whatever bonds we started to form during the day were solidified tonight. It truly feels like I’m getting to know these people.

It’s been a big first day, Mom & Dad, but it’s lights out for now in Bunk Five (look alive!). I’ll write you guys tomorrow!

Your Son,
Wilder

Saturday

The Flip N Slide was just one of many events slated for Color War

Dear Mom & Dad,

What. A. Day.

No summer camp experience is complete without an all-out group competition. The all-out, fierce, unbridled, unflinching, monstrous battle for dominance that is… Color War.

Color War is divided into two parts. The first part consists of multiple sports and challenges taking place at the exact same time. The winners of these sports and challenges are given a head start in the second part… the Apache Relay (and yes, I’m well aware of the culturally problematic nature of this name).

The Apache Relay is a 19-part relay battle that stretches across the grounds of the entire camp. It includes everything from a straight-up sprint, to a cereal eating contest, to a beer pong shot, to a race up a rock climbing wall, and culminates in the Flip N Slide — AKA, a 75 foot slip-n-slide followed by a flip cup shot.

Despite MVP’s previous camp experience, the odds were stacked against us from the beginning. We were Green Team. We had by far the fewest amount of players. This could be a blood bath.

MVP advises on who should sign up for which events for Color War

Red Team (the clear villains, I might add), was completely stacked, full of hulking talent and by far the largest in number. Now you’re probably guessing Johnny Bananas was on Red. Certainly seems like it’s where he belonged.

WRONGO! Bananas was with us. Undermanned and saddled with my enemy, I was ready for a lonnnnnnnng day. But, as we learned in the acclaimed 1996 documentary Space Jam, an underdog story is always possible. Green Team — or Salsa Verde as we began to call ourselves — was ready for the challenge.

Under MVP’s guidance, we gathered our troops and prepared to divide and conquer. While most of us split up to compete tournament-style in our sports, a few other heroes went off to prepare for our lip-sync battle (which we were ROBBED of winning), and the flag design contest.

Color War had begun, and everything was happening at once.

I decided to play volleyball, which was an especially excellent idea because I’ve never played a single second of volleyball in my life.

The author of this post about to wreck havoc on the volleyball court

But guess what, Mom & Dad?! Are you guessing??? If you guessed that we took first place in volleyball, you guessed correctly. Hit after hit, save after save, our ragtag bunch of Bunk Five (look alive!) and the rest of our Salsa Verde family began to look like a professional squad. If it was a sports movie shot by Janusz Kaminski, you probably would have cried.

Invigorated by our victory, we marched to dodgeball to cheer the rest of the Greenies on. Led by none other than Johnny Bananas, we also took first in dodgeball. I’m pretty sure he sent a couple people to the emergency room.

Then something strange happened when we went to congratulate them. I sensed a flicker of humanity in the eye of the Banana. Was there a soul in there, just waiting to get out? Could we truly band together to win this thing?

I never would have called myself a competitive person, but when we saw that our kickball team had also done well, I think it’s safe to say those days were long behind me. Old Wilder was gone. New Wilder painted a gigantic “S V” across his face and began shouting Salsa Verde at literally anybody that walked past him.

He was kind of awful.

Many sports, lip-sync routines, and flag designs later, the results of the relay head starts were in. The dastardly red squad was tied for the lead (obviously) with none other than the snarky upstarts wearing the shirts in green (have I hammered this underdog theme home enough?!?!?). Now it was time for the relay.

The relay started with the human carry, which is exactly what it sounds like. Four of us needed to grab somebody and sprint across the field towards the second leg of the relay, where the next Greenie was waiting to take a beer pong shot.

The Human Carry competition involves carrying humans

Now WHOM do you think was one of my partners for this activity? That’s correct. Johnny Bananas. We looked at one another.

“You doing this?” Johnny said.

“Yep.” I replied.

And suddenly, as though it was always meant to be, we understood each other. Johnny Bananas was no longer my enemy. He was my partner. My teammate. My brother. We clapped our hands together and took a knee. Electric guitars blared while lightning bolts crashed in the background. Without a word, we hoisted our teammate, and took our position. And you’d best believe we won the human carry.

After sharing a passionate and knowing moment with Johnny Bananas, I ran off to my second post; the basketball shot. As the rest of the relay happened around me, I got into position and surveyed the scene. Three teammates, all lined up to make layups. The first team to make all three gets to move on.

As you probably know I’ve been favorably compared to retired Canadian-Bahamian small forward and three-time NBA champion/occasional actor Rick Fox (because I’m also an occasional actor). I made the shot is what I’m trying to say.

The sweet sweet swish-diddy (is that how basketball people talk?) of the net still ringing in my ears, I raced over to the Flip N Slide.

Upon my arrival at the Flip N Slide, however, I noticed something about 200 feet away; The Human Pyramid, the penultimate leg of the race. Four of the five required teammates were flagging me down, and shouting for my help. Apparently, the final member hadn’t shown up yet, and our team was approaching fast to tag them.

Now by this point, I may have given you the impression I am sort sort of CNC superstar.

If so, good, that’s exactly what I’m going for.

I reached the pyramid just in time. We knocked the human pyramid out of the park, then I ran back over to the Flip N Slide. Because of our aforementioned small team size, most of us had to go twice.

The author of this post on the Flip N Slide not having a good time at all

The Color War was winding down.  And as fate would have it, we were just about neck and neck with Red. Victory was within our grasp.

Then, a terrifying thing happened. We began to slowly fall behind. It was like someone had sucked the lifeforce out of us with that wacky vacuum from Luigi’s Mansion (how’s that for nostalgia?).

Were we done for? The tension was so palpable you could grab a spoon and take a scoop out of the air. And soon enough, we only had one cup left. There it was, the win, just sitting there.

I looked up to the top of the hill to size up the person who’d flip the final cup. The crowd parted. The sun hung high in the sky.

Only one person could have flipped that final cup. Only one man was suited for the challenge. And there he was, a vision on the mountain top.

The culmination of the Color War was flipping a plastic cup.

Jonathan. Amadeus. Bananas.

He flipped. He scored. We won.

Chaos. Victory. Champagne everywhere. A never-ending chorus of the Salsa Verde chant ripping through the field. We hoisted MVP into the air. We hoisted the trophy into the air. We hoisted MVP hoisting the trophy into the air.

The Green Team celebrates victory!

And the rest of the night is a blur. Winning is fun. Partying after you win is even more fun. I don’t even think the Golden State Warriors celebrated their victory as hard as we did.

I almost forgot to write this letter, in fact. Luckily I woke up in a cold sweat due to severe dehydration and I’ve found the strength to pump out the story for you.

I hope I remember to mail this.

Your son,
Wilder

Sunday

Goodbyes are never easy

Dear Mom & Dad,

I’m writing this letter from the bus. We’re just about to head home, but I can’t believe the last day of camp is here already. It legitimately feels like an entire summer has passed.

As we packed up our bunks, ate breakfast, and lounged by the pool one last time, it suddenly became very emotional to cut ties with all my newfound friends. I saw two girls hugging and crying this morning, telling each other how much they’ll be missed. The false promises of “see you soon” filled the air. Typical camp stuff.

Was this summer — er, weekend — what I expected? Not remotely. Did I expect my camp enemy to become my camp best friend? No way. Did I expect to drink the equivalent of an Olympic swimming pool in booze? Yes. Definitely yes.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt this dead in my entire life. My lips are cracked open and bleeding. Every limb feels like it’s going to fall off. My organs have melted and become Flubber. I’m physically exhausted, emotionally exhausted, mentally exhausted, and spiritually exhausted.

So yeah, I’ve already signed up for next year.

Why am I mailing this letter to you? I’m only an hour away, and I’ll be home before it even arrives. Oh well.

Your son,
Wilder

Age 28

P.S. #1
Camp No Counselors costs between $525 – $700 for an all-inclusive three-day experience with prices dependent on how early you register. Sooooooo, yeah, do you think you float me the cash for next year? I’ll do the dishes. You guys are the best.

P.S. #2
For anyone reading these letters who is NOT my parents, keep in mind Camp No Counselors is also doing a special New Year’s Eve edition that you can sign up for now.

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