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The strip mall looked half-dead. There was a scruffy guy dressed Unabomber style in a hooded sweatshirt and cheap, wraparound mirrored sunglasses loitering outside the liquor store, and a bunch of contractors in hard hats standing at the squat little complex's far corner, as if sizing up the place for the wrecking ball.
Korean barbecue sandwich: $3.95
Breakfast burrito: $2.95
Shrimp and chips: $5.95
Bi bim bop: $5.95
Italian omelette on a roll: $3.50
Udon soup: $3.95
None of this inspired me to expect much from DiDi Deli.
Nor did the raggedy, hand-lettered signs in the windows listing daily specials and featured items pulled seemingly at random from the menus of other restaurants. Cheeseburgers... Texas BBQ...breakfast burritos...homemade kimchi... I read the lineup as I walked across the parking lot. Three kids sitting on the hood of a clapped-out Impala were playing Hey Buddy -- as in, "Hey, buddy, can you go in there and buy us a six-pack? My friend here forgot his ID." I stopped to ask if any of them ever ate at DiDi.
"DiDi Deli," I said, jerking my head at the spot behind the Impala, no more than ten steps from where they sat cruising for suckers. "You ever eat there?"
Two of them shook their heads. The third -- a real young-Republican type with a bad bleach job and ten feet of tow chain hanging from his pocket -- mumbled something under his breath.
"What?" I asked.
"Cheeseburgers," he said. "They got good cheeseburgers."
Well, hell, I thought: Such a glowing endorsement from the Pepsi Generation lowered my expectations even further. I asked what kind of beer they wanted. They said Fat Tire. Only in Colorado would kids be scrounging for microbrews...
The suite next door had been gutted right down to the fixtures and drywall, and dust hung thickly in the glassed-off entryway, but inside DiDi, everything was clean. The floor shone, the carpet seemed brand-new, and the half-dozen booths and tables looked like they'd never been used before the five or six customers already there had wandered in. It was small, quiet and brightly lit, with a small deli case, an upright cooler full of bottled soft drinks, three faux-antique copper molds hanging above the counter, and a couple of pictures on the wall showing idealized versions of menu items. And that was it. Like I said, I wasn't expecting much.
But that was before I got a look at the complete menu.
That was before one of DiDi's owners directed me (with a lot of pointing and broken English) to something on the menu different from what I'd ordered, because it was the same amount of food but cheaper by fifty cents.
That was before the night he gave my wife a Tootsie Pop after we had to wait a few extra minutes for our food.
And that was before I tasted the food.
DiDi owners Duk Young and Mi Rae Park have put together an eclectic lineup. Breakfast burritos, cheese fries, sauerkraut, Buffalo wings, kimchi, Russian dressing, miso soup, udon noodles and fish and chips all share space in the only kind of environment where so many cultures could be represented together without a U.N. peacekeeping force around to keep them honest. In New York City (where the Parks spent nearly twenty years running restaurants and delis before moving west to Denver), there are thousands of spots like DiDi: small storefront ethnic joints whose menus offer a little bit of everything. They tend to appear overnight with little or no fanfare; multiply and subdivide according to their own strange internal mathematics; sometimes change owners, staff and culinary influence a dozen times over their life spans; and then vanish just as mysteriously as they appeared. Often, these places are known for doing one thing exceptionally well -- serving the leanest Reuben on the Upper West Side, for example, or the best chicken-and-matzoh-ball soup within walking distance of the Verrazano Bridge -- and among Big Apple foodies, the discovery of such a prize is an achievement on par with snagging Friday dinner reservations at Balthazar, Le Bernardin or Nobu.
On a good day, in the right part of the city, you can take a trip around the world through these spots -- and do it without ever leaving your neighborhood. You can have fresh croissants for breakfast baked by Russian immigrants in a French boulangerie, with espresso grabbed from the Vietnamese street-corner pushcart; a lunch of samosas and an Italian ice from the Pakistani counterman at the Nepalese deli; and dinner at your Iranian cabbie's favorite Laotian place on the edge of Chinatown, where you can enjoy chicken feet, a pastrami sandwich, a slice of pizza, some pho and a Dr. Brown's black cherry soda.
"To tell you the truth, that's the kind of thing we were trying to do," says Jung Park, son of Duk and Mi. "When my parents first came here, they thought Lakewood was definitely in need of some foreign food." So they decided they would try a menu featuring their own native Korean food, some Italian, a little Mexican and whatever else they thought people would like. It would be foreign food, American style -- all as genuine as they could make it.
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