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.
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.
1560 Kipling Street, Lakewood
Hours: 8 a.m. - 7:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday
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
"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.
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.
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 lo palate this time around as it was on the two other occasions I tried some. That must mean DiDi's kimchi is pretty good.
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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.
Ultimately, that's what made DiDi something special, surprising me against all odds, impressing me more than I thought it possibly could: Despite such a broad menu, everything on it tasted like the real deal. The Texas barbecued ribs could have come from a roadside shack outside of Houston; the Buffalo wings were the sort you could find at any bar in that city after a Sabres game. Rather than instant ramen, DiDi's udon soup (available with chicken, shrimp or beef) was a slow-cooked broth that could have been ladled straight from the kettles of a Japanese noodle house. And true to the recommendation of the kid in the parking lot, when you order a cheeseburger, that's what you're going to get: a plain old American cheeseburger, and a good one.
You can't cheat in a New York deli. You can't cut corners and think no one is going to notice. With millions of hungry people from every country on the planet and every city in America walking the streets every day, someone will know if your bi bim bop isn't right. Someone will call you on it if your Buffalo wings don't taste like they do in Buffalo or your fish and chips aren't what they got in London. DiDi's doesn't cheat, either. What it's doing is fusion in the most interesting sense of the word -- meaning not a blending of several ethnic flavors on any one plate, but a distinct and separate offering of a little bit of everything. Burgers and fries, fish and chips, sausage and peppers, sesame beef, pickled cabbage and burritos -- it's laughable to see all those different dishes together on one menu, but it's also quintessentially American. This is the immigrant experience played out in food, and played out deliciously.