JULY 30, 2018
Photograph of Jonas Never with his Jonathan Gold mural at Margo’s Santa Monica.
WHEN YOU WALK into The Hat, the one in Temple City on the corner of Rosemead Boulevard and Broadway, there on the wood-paneled wall, above the thermostat and the no-smoking sign, you will find a framed article from the Los Angeles Times. Titled “Big Dippers,” and definitively illustrating — if not endorsing — pastrami-dip sandwiches, the sort of sandwich that might be blasphemous to devotees of Langer’s or Canter’s or Jerry’s Deli, the article is written by Jonathan Gold and dates from 1992. It is adjacent to another frame, this one capturing a nighttime scene, circa 1980, in front of the original Hat location at the corner of Garfield Avenue and Valley Boulevard. This second frame always appears to me like a screenshot captured straight from my childhood, the original Hat a block away from the apartment that holds my earliest memories of my grandmother — the second-floor view of the southbound traffic on Garfield, the brief, hand-held walk to the chocolate-and-banana checkerboard tile of The Hat’s ordering counter, the un-intimidated patio pigeons brushing past our ankles in search of scraps. Whenever I’m at The Hat in Temple City, I always note both the article and the photo, and I feel a validating thrill, not unlike the sensation that someone might have while recounting the night they saw Prince take the stage at an underground nightclub, or the time back in high school when they tried to guard Shaq in the low post, the feeling that comes when one’s path through life happens to intersect with that of someone destined for greatness.
The Hat’s pastrami was one of the only fast foods my father, a meatcutter for nearly 30 years, encouraged my sister and I to eat when we were kids. Later on, he’d lament that he always liked The Hat’s pastrami better when they would sell it to my mother by the pound, cold, to be steamed at home and served on the sturdy bolillos from La Principal (the long-gone panadería formerly at the corner of Klingerman and Mountain View Road, the panadería that was home to the bolillos that all other bolillos, now and forevermore, have been and will be measured against). I didn’t know it then, but my father was onto something, as in that Los Angeles Times review Jonathan notes of the Hat’s pastrami sandwich: “You might wish for better bread.”
Each time my cousin A— visits El Monte from Chihuahua, the meal with topmost priority is at Din Tai Fung, the Taiwanese restaurant chain widely known for its xiao long bao, its soup dumplings, our favorites being those filled with minced pork and crab. She and my tía usually arrive at night, and so the following day’s lunch is at the original Din Tai Fung location in Arcadia on Baldwin Avenue. We are usually there by 11 o’clock to beat the lunch rush, and we spend our wait time looking over the menu and translating it for my tía, everyone gleeful with anticipation. And now that the family includes children, my two-year-old son and my sister’s two toddlers, our table settings include paper plates and paper bowls decorated with cartoon dumplings. Inevitably, one of the plates will be set aside and taken as a souvenir. Last year, the dumplings at my cousin’s final, pre-departure-flight dinner at Din Tai Fung were so inspiring to her and her mother that we spent an hour afterward in Thuan Phat Supermarket, the Asian grocery emporium on the southeast corner of Rosemead and Garvey Avenue, buying bamboo steamers and packages of vacuum-sealed wonton skins, bottles of soy sauce and vinegar, of chili and sesame oils, enough supplies to fill half a suitcase, all so that they could attempt knockoff dumplings back home.
If you haven’t tried the xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung (at this point, why have you not tried them?) they are supple, soup-filled dumplings, thin-skinned and therefore delicate. Their arrival at the table always commences an exercise in patience as we wait for them to cool just enough to be lifted onto our white, ceramic spoons. Garnished with a shred or two of fresh ginger, and topped with a bit of black vinegar, the dumpling is eaten whole so that it bursts in your mouth. Rich, porky broth. Briny crab. Sweet acidity to balance the palate. I’ve yet to encounter another bite quite like it.
Din Tai Fung’s importance to my family is due, indirectly to Jonathan. We have a friend in common who took me there after Jonathan had introduced the world at large to Din Tai Fung in 2006. This was back before there were multiple locations throughout Southern California, before they had Latina and white hostesses, before satisfaction surveys came with the check, and the Chinese servers still curtly tossed the dumpling steamers onto your table as if they’d been forced to serve party crashers. Had my friend not taken me, I likely wouldn’t have gone on my own. It was in a strip mall of other exclusively Asian businesses, between a bakery and a teashop, and all the indecipherable signage would have intimidated my younger self, seeming more a reason not to go than an exciting opportunity. And this, maybe, is what Jonathan did for all of us, more than anything else: replaced fear of the unknown with a sense of adventure to be had. Din Tai Fung is where my mother learned to use chopsticks, where my son might too. Today, not much around the original location has changed. It remains one of my favorite places to eat, the site of a meal so consistently fantastic that someone in my family once said, “Even the burps taste good!” At this point, I’ve lost track of how many people I’ve taken there for the first time.
At a party thrown by our mutual friend, Jonathan and I got to talking about the burritos at La Palma, which is in El Monte, on Peck Road, just north of Lower Azusa. It’s obvious who’s there because it’s their spot for lunch and who’s there because they’ve read about the slender, Zacatecas-style burritos online, their info likely sourced from the same review that’s pinned on the wall beside the cash register. The mechanics smelling of motor oil and the guys in white, paint-spotted carpenter pants or fluorescent yellow vests are distinct from the couple uploading pictures of their meals to Instagram or the young man with asymmetrical, bleached hair plucking the serrano chile from his order like it had somehow come with a baby snake. These are the burritos that made Jonathan’s 2015 list of Los Angeles’s best. In that article, he notes that La Palma’s birria burritos seem “almost wholesome,” a claim I can corroborate by adding that, in the last months of my father’s life, he found them such a comforting favorite that he would request them a few times a week, insisting on an order of six each time, as if they were a crucial nutritional supplements.
At the party, Jonathan next asked what I thought about the tamales at Maria’s Bakery, a panadería just a few blocks south of Burritos La Palma. And I had to admit, sheepishly, that I hadn’t tried them, even though I lived minutes away from the nondescript building beside a struggling pizza shop and Antojitos Mi Amor (a favorite of my father’s that fostered my love of 50-cent carne asada tacos, and that also served fresh juices for a bit, the most notable being the beet and apple named “El Vampiro”). After a lifetime in El Monte, I’d probably driven past Maria’s Bakery thousands of times and yet I hadn’t thought to go in and explore. But Jonathan Gold had. And he had plenty to say about it, enough that we tried them the following week.
Once, after a reading I gave in Sylmar, I was approached by an audience member who asked if I was really from El Monte. I answered that I was.
“Well,” he said, nodding. “That sucks.”
I have always rejected the shame others might try to ascribe to this place and to those that live here. I’ve never outgrown the eagerness I had as a boy when watching the weather report in hopes of El Monte being among the other cities on the map projected behind Dr. George. This is one reason why, at our wedding, my wife and I offered guests paletas from La Michoacana, the popsicle and ice-cream shop on Valley Boulevard. “La Meech” is among our favorite businesses here. It has withstood the changing identities of the supermarket to which it’s attached — the Crawford’s Market where I played Jungle Hunt as a kid; the version of the market with hand-drawn paintings of every Mexican state displayed on the walls inside the store; the more directly named Mi Pueblito; the Super HK Market announced on a vinyl banner wrapped around the storefront, the English under thick Chinese logograms.
And so you can imagine my joy to see La Michoacana cited in Jonathan’s 2009 LA Weekly review of Birreria La Barca Jalisco. And what further surprise to see him comment on their prune paletas! Not their sandía, with chunks of frozen watermelon and the occasional seed to spit into your hand (or at whomever you’ve brought with you), or the coco de leche, or even the pepino (frozen cucumber’s not my thing, but whatever — people I respect say that it’s quite refreshing). If there’s a more unlikely flavor than prune in La Michoacana’s sliding glass freezers of freshly made popsicles, I don’t know it.
Jonathan wrote that La Michoacana’s “ice pops recalled Southwest France as vividly as they did Mexico.” The pairing here, the way he places the flavor alongside other comparisons, was something he often did. When asked about specific kinds of food, he was famous for naming off four and five and six examples, but what always impressed me more in these moments was that his comments were informed by a greater obligation to understand and appreciate where the food came from, literally and existentially, to grasp what traditions were being celebrated or perhaps intentionally upended. Known for his painstaking meticulousness, particularly when writing about dishes not often seen, his writing displayed a boundless and unceasing curiosity not just about food, but about people. He asked us to accept the food on its own terms, in its relation to its own world, and in creating these larger contexts, he honored the dignity of those who are making the meals, announcing that they, too, belong here. In his writing, I see hopes of a world where one person doesn’t have to live in automatic opposition to another.
On Monday, the day after news of Jonathan’s passing, my wife and I returned to Din Tai Fung with our son, because it felt like the fitting thing to have for dinner. (Golden Deli, the express location in Temple City, might have been another option, but they’re closed on Mondays, a situation we find ourselves in surprisingly often; if more than a week passes between visits, we’ll feel a soulful tug to return to a bowl of chicken pho in the way that some might feel compelled to stop by church after missing mass on Sunday.)
As I turned into the parking lot, I noticed that the ficus trees that had once lined the sidewalk had been removed, even the stumps, and the fresh sense of emptiness in this familiar place was impossible to ignore. Like many, I had spent the day grappling with the sudden, immeasurable loss of Jonathan’s passing by poring over and over the various online obituaries and tributes. These voices had me imagining that Din Tai Fung would be packed, an hour-long wait just as there could be before they opened the lavish secondary location a half-mile away in the Santa Anita Mall. Instead there was ample parking and we entered the restaurant to find it strangely vacant, only a few other tables with diners. Seated immediately, we ticked off our selections on the order form with well-practiced experience, and were disappointed to learn that they were out of green beans, our son’s favorite item on the menu.
We ate quickly, the meal punctuated with many solemn, silent pauses. Our son was disinterested in the substitute broccoli and started to play with his fried rice. To distract him from reaching for the tray of vinegar and the lidded glass ramekin of chili oil, I plucked a morsel of chicken from the dish of fried rice and began to make airplane noises while I waved it in front of his face, something I never did when he was a baby and was doing now out of my own need for distraction, too. “Who wants pollito?” I asked. His response was to bite the chicken from my chopsticks and smile with accomplishment as he chewed.
Were I able to speak to Jonathan one more time, it would be as a resident of El Monte, at the center of the San Gabriel Valley, a person who also, like him, cheers the underdog and finds transcendence in the obscure. And it would also be as the son of an immigrant and a continually embattled people, a father hoping that curiosity will lead his boy toward a richly filled life. I would lean in close, because I can be a mumbler and I’d want to make sure that he could hear me. And, with all of the aforementioned in mind, I would say:
Michael Jaime-Becerra is a native of El Monte, California. He is associate professor of Creative Writing at UC Riverside and the author of the collection of stories Every Night is Ladies’ Night (2004) and the novel This Time Tomorrow (2010).