Dig Baton Rouge

Review: Cafe Mimi

When those leaves start changing color and the weather (maybe, hopefully, fingers crossed) starts to get a little bit chillier, there is nothing better than a warm bowl of pho.

Cafe Mimi delivers. A new vibe has taken over the old Harrington’s Café and it is light, bright, and fully flavorful. Family team Julie and Dave Carlson and Julie’s brother and sister-in-law, Steven and Sally Banh have had a long road to this opening. Before the flood in 2016, they were planning on opening a juice bar at Towne Center but had to switch gears when the family was hit badly. After assessing their options, the Harrington’s building became available and they jumped at the lease.

Images: Sean Gasser

The restaurant is named for their niece Meghan, whom the family affectionately called “Mimi”, following her tragic passing from a brain malformation. “Cafe Mimi lives in her memory and celebrates her amazing and kind spirit,” notes Julie affectionately.

The family team completely remodeled the space, giving it a modern facelift. Colorful paintings line the wall and a “Welcome ya’ll” sign greets customers. You aren’t able to tell what cuisine the space offers, but it is cheery nonetheless. There is a counter for professionals in search of a quick meal and lots of tables for leisurely lunch-ers.

They are bringing a different option to the thriving downtown scene; something new, something fresh. All of the Vietnamese favorites on the menu are family favorites, passed down through generations. After living much of my adult life in Asia (with countless trips to Ho Chi Minh City just to eat), Cafe Mimi was getting a tougher critic then they probably expected.

Their breakfast menu, which is served from 6-10 am daily, hits much closer to home with all-American favorites. Biscuits, breakfast sandwiches, cheese grits: the gang is all here and very reasonably priced. The most expensive offering is the “big breakfast” complete with a biscuit, cheese grits, scrambled eggs, and a choice of meat (bacon, sausage, ham) at $7. Breakfast sandwiches are all around $3 which makes them a stellar bargain. I went straight for a large Vietnamese coffee. For those who don’t know about the magic that is Vietnamese coffee, get ready. Heaps of condensed milk are mixed with an espresso-like brew to make a treat as sweet as dessert. Heaven.

The lunch menu changes weekly, for now. They are in the process of seeing what customers love and what pushes the envelope a bit too much. Some Southern items have stayed on the menu to pay homage to the beloved Harrington’s menu. Last week there was “grilled fish topped with crawfish etouffee” and a shrimp bisque. They sounded delicious; however, I had my eye on the prize and went right for the Vietnamese options. If you are familiar with Vietnamese cuisine there are no huge surprises, and if you aren’t familiar it is the perfect way to ease into new flavors.

I tried the fresh spring rolls first as they are one of my favorite staples. Stuffed with pork, shrimp, vermicelli noodles, cucumber and cilantro, they were huge. One was enough for each person as an appetizer and the homemade dipping sauce was delicious (2 rolls for $5, 4 for $10). Next was the vermicelli bowl, which came with a choice of pork or shrimp (I chose pork), fried egg rolls & fresh herbs with a sweet fish sauce. The pork is marinated overnight in a flavor rub and barbecued, giving it an aromatic and smoky flavor ($12). The portion is huge and I had leftovers. The one sadness was that I visited in between their breakfast and lunch hours and there wasn’t any pho on hand to try. I returned a couple of days later for the grand finale and it was well worth the wait. They make the pho stock weekly, slowly simmering so it gets all that great, rich flavor. There was a generous amount of beef and brisket and there was plenty of extras on the side to create your perfect bowl. With the weekly menu, I hope they offer a chicken pho in weeks to come for those not big into red meat.

I left with an empty bowl and a full heart, inspired by the family’s story and excited to see what next week brings. Cafe Mimi is located in Downtown Baton Rouge at 329 Florida St. Breakfast is served daily from 6-10 a.m. and lunch is served from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. daily.

 

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