The First Restaurant Critic of Color at the L.A. Times
By Jacquelyn ArdamAugust 16, 2022
And she was very good at it. She wrote reviews of trendy new restaurants, of course, but she also wrote about so much more. She reviewed new and established sites all over Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside counties. She compiled lists of the best spots for mole, for Sonoran food. She wrote about accessible, kid-friendly restaurants. She profiled taqueras working in the male-dominated field of taco trucks. In March 2020, amid total chaos, she wrote about the effects of the pandemic on undocumented restaurant workers.
In the summer of 2020, Escárcega wrote about the dangers of adopting a “swallow-and-write method” of restaurant criticism. She used her platform — and called on other critics to use theirs — in this moment of reckoning for the US restaurant industry. She called on food writers to make visible to a wider public “the long-standing culture of abuse, harassment and exploitation in professional kitchens [and] the lack of health benefits, compounded by the threat of exposure, that has made restaurant work increasingly dangerous.”
She wanted to reinforce “the growing sense that a business model predicated on paying workers minimum wage is fundamentally flawed.” That fall, Escárcega wrote about the community fridges — a form of decentralized mutual aid — popping up all over Los Angeles. Her journalism in the early months of the pandemic was vital.
I first got to know Escárcega’s work by hearing her on the KCRW show Good Food. I liked how she talked about food and the people who make it, and I liked her warm speaking voice. I had recently moved back to Los Angeles after several years away, and I immediately trusted Escárcega to tell me where to eat and what to know. I imagined, in that parasocial way, that we were friends, that she was reintroducing me to a Los Angeles that I was so happy to return to — especially to eat. I subscribed to the L.A. Times for the first time in my life, for more Patricia Escárcega.
So, when Escárcega tweeted about her pay equity dispute at the L.A. Times in late 2020, I paid attention. She had found out that she was getting paid only two-thirds of the salary that Bill Addison, her co-critic and a white man, was receiving from the paper. Escárcega and Addison had been hired at the same time to replace the legendary L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold. They had the same job title and responsibilities. They were co-critics. The injustice couldn’t have been clearer. After two years of work at the paper, Escárcega filed a pay discrimination claim through the L.A. Times Guild union in an attempt to rectify the disparity in pay. In November 2020, she tweeted:
The two-page memo that @latimes sent me yesterday was extremely painful to read. In the memo, the L.A. Times said I am not worth the same as my male or white colleagues.
The letter says I deserve to make only two-thirds of what my co-critic is paid — even though we have the exact same job responsibilities — because I do not bring prestige to the paper, and because the company says our job classifications aren’t the same.
Without telling me, the company classified me as a junior critic upon hire, even though I was told repeatedly by managers that I was equal to my co-critic, and I have always been expected to do the same work, and held to the same expectations and standards. […]
This week, many people at the L.A. Times put their heads together and wrote me a letter that said: Your work is not worth the same as a white man’s.
This is a cruel fiction.
Six months later, she left the paper.
I was horrified, and yet not surprised. How could I be, when I had heard so many similar stories, in public and in private, from women, and especially from women of color, across so many different industries and professions?
I met Escárcega on a sunny Saturday morning at Barnsdall Park in East Hollywood. We have liked each other’s tweets for years now — she is a noted fan of my dog — but we had never talked beyond a few Twitter exchanges. Escárcega brought cookies and croissants from Friends & Family, a Bark Bar for my dog, and lemons from her lemon tree; I brought grilled sticky rice with banana and taro from Bhan Kanom Thai. I, an enthusiastic eater but not a particularly knowledgeable one, was nervous about meeting Escárcega, and about bringing her food. I didn’t need to be.
We talked for several hours while sitting on a picnic blanket on the grass and sharing our treats with my dog, who can charm her way into any human snack. I wanted to hear about Escárcega’s pay equity dispute and departure from the Los Angeles Times, of course, but I also wanted to know her story, about how and why she became a restaurant critic.
Escárcega grew up in Riverside County, the daughter of citrus workers who met on the job. She moved to Arizona as a teen and attended high school in Phoenix. She got degrees in English and political science from Arizona State University, and went on to get an MFA in fiction and a master’s in library and information science from the University of Arizona. While getting these degrees, Escárcega freelanced: she did copywriting and editing, worked for content farms, and wrote music and literary reviews for websites that no longer exist. She eventually began reviewing restaurants for USA Today and the Phoenix New Times, and later got hired at The Arizona Republic as a dining reporter.
Escárcega told me that her experience writing at the Phoenix New Times was unique. She was hired based on her clips about restaurants on the west side — the Latinx side — of Phoenix. Amy Silverman, her editor, told Escárcega when she hired her: “I really like that you’re from the west side, because we never hear from writers on the west side.” She felt she was valued for her positionality as a Latinx critic writing about food made and eaten by Latinx people, who make up more than 40 percent of Phoenix’s population.
Escárcega was hired to fill an institutional gap, and she did it — at the Phoenix New Times, and then for two years at the Los Angeles Times. She explained to me that she is motivated to tell stories that are not often told in the white-dominated world of food journalism. “I was very cognizant of what restaurants were covered by local newspapers, and what restaurants weren’t being covered,” she told me. “And what wasn’t being covered were the places where my family ate. Nobody wrote about those restaurants. They just weren’t considered the hip restaurants. And I wanted to write about those more quotidian restaurants, and what they can mean to a family and a community.”
Escárcega’s interest in history is palpable in her writing. When she told me that she had worked as a special-collections librarian before turning to food journalism full-time, I felt something click in my understanding of her work. She told me that her work in university archives profoundly shaped her view of herself as well as the development of her career. “When you’re a person of color and you try to figure out your lineage and where you come from,” she said, “you find that there’s no record of us. There’s absolutely no record of us. So, I have been quietly trying to create a record of restaurants that I think are noteworthy and deserve to be mentioned in our newspapers.”
When I asked how her own motivation for the type of journalism she does matches up with the regular reviewing responsibilities of a restaurant critic, she told me that she works “really hard to balance that instinct towards novelty that lives in the food media world with writing about places that are established. What are they doing that works? What does it mean for a restaurant to survive for 20 years? What does a restaurant mean to its community?”
This, I realize, is what I like so much about Escárcega’s work: it is never just about the food.
One of my favorite articles by Escárcega, one that perhaps best reflects her love of food and drive to understand its history and culture, is a piece she wrote for Bon Appétit titled “It’s Time We Give the Mexican Combo Platter the Credit It Deserves.” Escárcega begins by describing the Number 11 combo plate at La Familia, a now-closed Mexican restaurant in Phoenix that she used to go to with her family for special occasions. The Number 11 consisted of sopita de arroz, pinto beans, and a chile relleno. As always, Escárcega’s descriptions of food make my mouth water:
The Number 11 was hearty and flagrantly rich, a spectacle of fleshy, smoky chile and molten white cheese. The rice and beans were crucial to the experience, offering succor from the chile’s needling spice, but also fortifying and delicious on their own. Eating it filled me with a warm buzzy pleasure.
But Escárcega doesn’t stop at describing the food. She dives into the history of the Mexican restaurant combo plate, a genre of food that is both ubiquitous and often “dismissed by food writers as cheap, formulaic, old-fashioned, or ‘inauthentic.’” She traces the combo plate’s origins to Otis Farnsworth and, later, Miguel Martinez, both of whom made Mexican food more accessible to white Texans in the early 20th century, and then describes its role in Tex-Mex small restaurants across the United States. The combo plate is a distinctly Mexican American (not Mexican) phenomenon; Escárcega writes, “Just as Mexican cuisine encompasses myriad distinct regional styles, so too does Mexican American cooking, and embracing that richness means embracing the combo plate.” I love a good combo plate, and I love that Escárcega writes about such a “humble” genre with intelligence, complexity, and care.
The Los Angeles Times recruited Escárcega to be one of the replacement critics for Jonathan Gold, who died in 2018, and her experience at the paper was difficult, to say the least. In addition to the expected challenges of being a restaurant critic — the toll that eating rich food takes on the body, late writing nights “zooming in on a picture trying to figure out what kind of basil was used on a lasagna,” demanding deadlines, constant feedback from readers — Escárcega also found herself in the position of desegregating a newsroom in 2019.
There is much the critic cannot say about her work at the L.A. Times for legal reasons, but she tells me:
I’m proud of the work I was able to do under difficult circumstances. I wish I could have done more … I had a whole notebook of ideas and stories I was working on. And it’s really heartbreaking to me because I think that some of the restaurants I was interested in might never be written about. It’s heartbreaking that I had to leave. But I feel like I was incredibly privileged to do that job, even if it was only for two years.
What strikes me in our conversation is that Escárcega is upset not so much about her personal career trajectory, but about all of the stories she wasn’t able to tell, the restaurants she wasn’t able to chronicle, the voices she wasn’t able to elevate, the histories and archives she wasn’t able to establish for the communities she cares about so much. For Escárcega, it’s not about ego; it’s about the work.
Though I do miss Escárcega’s voice at the Los Angeles Times and on the radio, it’s clear to me that leaving the paper — and talking publicly about her reasons for doing so — was the right decision for Escárcega, and for her readers. It was brave for her to demand equal pay for equal work, and even braver for her to leave the publication when that demand was met with hostility and condescension. Her experience at the L.A. Times — both working for and departing from the publication — has spurred her interest in labor equity, and she counts herself as one among many Latinx workers who are doing the same work as their white counterparts for less pay.
The injustice she experienced has inspired a new project: Escárcega is at work on a podcast about pay equity and Latinas in the United States. While I may miss her writing about food, I am grateful for all that she has taught me about my city, and for publicly fighting the good fight. Escárcega’s voice will endure.
Jacquelyn Ardam is the author of Avidly Reads Poetry (NYU Press, 2022) and the assistant director of the Undergraduate Research Center for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at UCLA.
Featured image: “Beef Tostada Plate” by pointnshoot is licensed under CC-BY-2.0.
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