By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
Unfortunately, the Parks ran into two problems almost immediately. First, says Jung, "I don't think people in Lakewood are used to having anything new or foreign. There are some great regulars who come in almost every day, but that's not enough." (The lack of customers explained why everything at DiDi looked so clean and new.) And second, DiDi opened its doors on September 10 last year (yeah, that September 10, followed immediately by that September 11) and had to scrape through its first year in a business climate that has maimed and crippled restaurants ten times its size, with ten times its cash flow, and saw dozens close entirely.
For my initial DiDi lunch, I went with the Korean barbecued-beef sandwich, which consisted of a full-sized sub roll, soft and fresh, a little crisp lettuce, and so much marinated beef that the poor sandwich was barely able to retain its structural integrity. Which, of course, is the first mark of a good sandwich and the reason I don't go to Subway.
Korean barbecue is nutty in flavor, tender and a little sweet (but not sickeningly so, like those spareribs you get at a Chinese buffet). For the beef sandwich, the meat is shredded (if you go with chicken, it's sliced thin) and sprinkled with lightly toasted sesame seeds that actually add some flavor rather than serving as decorations that get caught in your teeth and embarrass you when you smile at the cute girl in the car next to you while driving home. I'd taken the thing to go and really only meant to have a few bites -- seeing as how I had another meal to eat in a couple of hours and wanted to save room -- but I couldn't help myself. A bite here, a bite there, and the next thing you know, I was picking stray pieces of beef off the butcher's paper with my fingertips and rubbing sauce on my gums like cocaine.
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
Don't make the mistake of trying that with DiDi's Korean spicy sandwich, which had roughly the same composition as the barbecued beef, except added to the nice, mellow sauce was a little red-chile paste and some lava. The lingering smoky aftertaste? That was my tongue catching fire. The sandwich was tasty, but it should carry a warning.
DiDi also slings a nice Texas barbecue on huge, meaty ribs that come three or four to an order with either baked beans, fried rice (the only DiDi dish I didn't like -- very salty and heavy on the soy sauce), or a seriously good potato salad. The Parks got the 'cue recipe from a family friend who's a Texas native, and the sauce was thick, dark, tangy and strong -- the kind where even though you tell yourself you're going to be careful and try not to make a mess, after the first few bites it's smeared all over your face, in your hair and stuck under your nails, and you don't care a bit.
Under normal circumstances, I'd avoid seafood at any place that doesn't seem to be doing a booming business in it. It's a matter of freshness, and how fast old food moves out of the coolers to make room for new stuff. But having no fear at the very tidy DiDi, I ordered shrimp and chips. The shrimp was fresh and clean-tasting, deep-fried in a simple crust of Japanese breadcrumbs and served in a generous portion (probably ten or twelve, but I'd already eaten a bunch of them before I thought to count) with a dull tartar sauce.
Like Ocean City ("Foreign Intrigue," October 3), DiDi has a secret, second menu for the few Korean regulars who frequent the establishment, which includes sautéed mixed seafood in oyster sauce over rice, handmade beef-and-kimchi dumplings, and spicy Korean buckwheat and flour noodles. I tried some of that homemade kimchi advertised in the window and found the pickled cabbage to be just as violently offensive to my gwai lopalate this time around as it was on the two other occasions I tried some. That must mean DiDi's kimchi is pretty good.
Also a winner was the Korean-menu bi bim bop, a traditional dish of mild barbecued beef, fresh bean sprouts, lettuce, mushrooms, shredded cucumber, sliced zucchini, stewed greens and a fried egg, all kept separate but piled on a big mound of white rice. It came with go choo jong,a thick, heavy, red-pepper paste intended to be spooned generously on top before you dig in with the chopsticks and moosh everything together. The differing textures, tastes and temperatures interacted wonderfully, with each ingredient playing off the others while still retaining its own identity. Although the sprouts were a little tough and the egg definitely overcooked, the greens were delicious -- warm and earthy, and strong enough to hold up against the heat of the pepper paste -- and the barbecued beef was sweetened to balance the other fresh vegetables on the plate.
Even DiDi's egg rolls were something special, rolled in a flaky skin and stuffed with chicken, mushrooms and an array of crisp veggies rather than your usual stringy pork, microscopic shrimp and limp, steamed cabbage. And one morning I tried an Italian omelette sandwich -- fresh tomato, onions, good mozzarella cheese and sausage folded in with eggs and crammed onto a warm roll -- that was as good as anything I could've gotten in Little Italy.