Or as if we were dreaming.
The busy restaurant just a few inches away is the popular Saigon 39, which Perkins opened in 1992 and turned over to her children seven years ago. Like My Dream Café, it's also a Vietnamese restaurant. What Saigon 39 doesn't have is Mimi Perkins, and that's why she opened her second restaurant. Retirement, she says, bored her.
"I always like to work," she says. "After I turned Saigon 39 over to the kids, they told me to rest, but I was still going in there every day. And the customers tell me, 'Mimi, I thought you retired.' And I thought I did, too, but I like to talk to people, you know?"
Perkins, who owns the building where her businesses are located, also wasn't happy with the various tenants who had occupied the corner location at 1808 over the years. "They didn't take care of the place so good, you know? So finally I decided not to renew the lease and I turned it into my playhouse. I like to talk to people, you know?"
Perkins, an attractive 60-something Hanoi native (she moved to Saigon as a girl and to the United States as a young bride in 1970), can talk to me as much as she likes, because her vivacious personality is one reason to visit her 3-month-old restaurant. That and her distinctive Vietnamese dishes. There's some culinary overlapping with Saigon 39's menu (the plump goi spring rolls, the rice noodle bun dishes), but My Dream Café's food is unique enough to make eating in the narrow dining room -- painted the same blue as a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air hardtop -- a highly entertaining experience. You know?
Though they have yet to materialize, Perkins had some grand ideas for her "playhouse." Like karaoke. She installed a half-dozen television sets in various corners of the dining room and in the open kitchen, but she hasn't given anyone permission to warble along with the greatest hits of Jacky Cheung. That's because she thinks the constant scramble for parking along the 39th Street corridor will scare off karaoke junkies who just want to come in at night and sing instead of eat. Right now, there's not much of either happening.
"I need to get some American karaoke CDs, anyway," Mimi says. "Not everyone wants to sing along to Asian music."
I told her I'd imitate top-of-the-Hong Kong-pop-chart star Cheung singing "Goodbye Kiss," but only if I could have his abdominal muscles, too. And that wasn't likely after I had done a number, as it were, on a trio of excellent starters that included those spring rolls. Stuffed with shrimp, rice noodles, lettuce, carrots and cilantro, they were practically bursting their moist, rice-paper wrappers. This was the night Bob, Louise and I held court by ourselves for most of the evening. After the spring rolls arrived, Bob and I had to yank the nuoc leo dipping sauce away from Louise, who has a peanut allergy. So she dipped her goi -- and the crispy fried egg rolls and the crunchy pork-filled Vietnamese dumplings -- into the garlicky, translucent fish-based sauce that's known as nuoc cham in Vietnam. Perkins should leave it at that, but her menu describes this lovely, slightly citrusy sauce as "anchovy vinaigrette" which suggests that it's a good deal more fishy-tasting than it is.
Bob has known Perkins for decades, ever since she was a saucy waitress at China Tom's. "I went wild after my divorce," she told us as she cleared the appetizer plates. "I used to wear miniskirts."
She was wearing a tight black mini as she said that, but at least she still looks good in one. Her place looks good, too; even if the décor was done on a budget, it was done with imagination. Yellow and blue neon stars are mounted on the black ceiling, and a few silk-flower displays are scattered here and there. The tables are uncloaked black surfaces, allowing Perkins' dishes to be the real visual stars -- like the pho bowl filled with thick rice noodles floating in an amber beef broth, fragrant with ginger and onion and heaped with sliced chicken breast, flank steak or small meatballs. Or in my case, all of the above.
I lustily shoveled the noodles in my mouth as Louise daintily nibbled on a bowl of jasmine rice topped with a jumble of grilled shrimp, and Bob, who is ordinarily wary of Vietnamese food, practically pounced on his bun, a hefty bowl of slender rice vermicelli that he had arranged to have topped with charbroiled chicken, beef and shrimp. "It all tastes very fresh and excellent," he raved.
We ended the meal with satiny baked flan, a culinary relic from when the French occupied Vietnam. That period influenced many of the country's signature sweets, including the dark-roasted coffee that slowly percolates into a jelly glass filled with a layer of condensed milk.
My diet-obsessed friend Larry tried to get the coffee without the sweetened milk on the night he and I dined at My Dream Café with our friend Jamie, but Perkins would have none of it. She had already stared, aghast, as her carbohydrate-loathing customer picked the ground pork filling out of the egg rolls and took apart the rolled Vietnamese crepes rather than actually eat the soft, slightly rubbery wrapping of tapioca and rice flour.
Jamie and I -- who probably should be more careful about carbs -- laughed at his efforts and dipped fat chunks of the crepes into the nuoc cham and swallowed them whole. But Larry was much braver than the both of us when a plate of eight little green banh bot loc ("steamed meat cakes") wrapped in fresh banana leaves came to the table.
We each unwrapped one and gazed down on a gelatinous spoonful of smoky- colored and vaguely gluey "cake" that looked so unappetizing that I blanched. Perkins saw me and whispered, "You don't like it, spit it out." I didn't like it but swallowed anyway; one taste was plenty for me. Larry, on the other hand, ate three of them.
"Some people don't like these," Perkins shrugged. "But if I take them off the menu, customers want them back."
I took a big gulp of iced tea (a lovely blend of jasmine and green teas) and continued with another crepe. My mood improved when Perkins brought out a cup of the soothing "rice porridge," a thick chicken-based soup loaded with chicken and chopped green onion and cilantro, along with chewy strips of fried tofu.
Larry ordered his pho without noodles and loved the seasoned soup with only broth and lots of meat. Jamie, a longtime Saigon 39 fan, said he preferred the spicier version of bun served next door, but he still managed to make a crack in it. And my Com Thit Heo looked like the Hanoi version of a Blue Plate Special -- and that's the highest pos-sible compliment. It was a superbly grilled hunk of pork steak perched on a cloud of steamed jasmine rice, accompanied by a tiny omelette speckled with scallions.
For dessert we shared an order of oversized sesame balls (they're nearly as big as golf balls), which were more savory than sweet. I liked the crispy fried exterior more than the pale bean paste inside, but Jamie liked the salty sweetness of the dessert. "There's a nice tactile quality to it, too," he said, rubbing the surface of the steaming orb.
Perkins begged us to stay until nearly 10 p.m. She likes to talk, you know. And we did, because we didn't want to spoil her dream.