About two months after we first meet, I am having dinner with Chang at Williamsburg’s St. Anselm, one of the few places she has yet to cross off her original list. We order butcher’s steak, grilled artichoke hearts (“Don’t you always feel so humbled eating an artichoke?”), a patty melt, and a couple of other dishes I strain to remember two days later; Chang will probably be able to recall them, in succession, two years from now. She photographs each, and shares them on Instagram. Chang keeps a blog, of course. It’s called Beets N’ Jamz (she pairs meals she’s eaten recently, i.e., a breakfast taco from Brooklyn Taco, with songs, i.e., Fleetwood Mac’s “Hypnotized,” and refers to herself as D.J. Panko). It replaces her two previous bread-focused blogs called Lotta Loaf and Baguettaboutit. But these days Chang is much more interested in throwing real-life parties. “Diane is very good about bringing people together,” says her friend Katherine, “and it will always involve food.” Her first year in New York, Chang organized an Oktoberfest picnic for a dozen people in Brooklyn Bridge Park. She made pretzels, pigs in a blanket, and curried ketchup, all from scratch. Chang’s birthdays are equally elaborate culinary group outings: In 2010, she went to Spicy & Tasty, a cult Sichuan eatery in Flushing. Last year, she considered Tanoreen, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Bay Ridge, but decided instead on Tulcingo del Valle, an unassuming Mexican place in Hell’s Kitchen. She also tried to start a Barbecue Club on the model of her Burger Club in L.A., but found the scene too limited. “You’ve got Fatty ’Cue, Fette Sau, Rub, you have Hill Country, Dinosaur … but then it’s like, where are you going to go, Dallas BBQ? Burgers are so much easier in New York. I’m kind of sick of burgers a little bit, though.” Which doesn’t prevent her from sampling my patty melt.
Aside from Robert Sietsema and Jonathan Gold, with their tight focus on rustic and ethnic food, Chang doesn’t trust food critics. She used to simply go on friends’ recommendations, but the blogs changed the game. Now the choice of a place for dinner turns into an oft-tortuous multistep process. When someone recommends a place, Chang goes online. Despite her distrust of Yelp and sites like it, she still reads them compulsively, at least to look at the photos. “It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad,” she says. “I just want to know.” Last night, she had three options, she tells me. “And I was just stressing out and stressing out about it. The reason I ended up choosing Neptune was, like, ‘Okay, I mean, that’s the one from way out of left field, no one ever talks about it, maybe I’ll stumble across a gem.’ But it’s like, I also realize, there’s not a single restaurant no one has ever talked about any more.”
Sometimes, of course, this approach misfires. Neptune, an obscure Polish restaurant on First Avenue, proved the biggest disappointment of the fourteen places where Chang ate that week. The idea belonged to Chang’s then-boyfriend, another card-carrying food fanatic. (For the couple’s first date, they had gone to a festival called “Egg Rolls and Egg Creams.”) Telling me about the Neptune debacle, Chang sounds depressed, apologetic even. “We happened to be in Union Square, which always throws us off in our food choices,” she says. She had suggested ABC Kitchen for her favorite cumin-carrot salad and a glass of wine. Maybe Cotan for Japanese? Or Zabb Elee for Thai? But no, the boyfriend insisted on Neptune. He felt really bad, she says. “It was the first time he’s ever struck out picking a restaurant.” They broke up not long afterward.