9812 Mission Gorge Road, Santee
You notice it as you rumble into Santee on the last few yards of the Green Line. It looks like a French farmhouse, right beside the tracks.
Yellow walls, red-tile roof, aquamarine window frames, lots of flowerpots. Mimi’s Cafe. Looks cute. Like, different from Target and the rest of the big-box corporate suspects that make up this plaza.
This is about 8:00 at night. I jump off the trolley and make for that French farmhouse. Hungry.
Notice a chalkboard outside. “All you can eat soup and salad, only $6.99.”
Hey, cool. This sounds like just what I need. I head in. And who knows? Mimi could be a real person, a French demoiselle…
I spot a multipage menu on a stand in the foyer. It has a big spiel on its cover.
“In 1944, an American airman named Arthur J. Simms fell in love with the beauty, foods, and flavors of France… Young Arthur J. was taken by the friendly neighborhood bistros and warm, inviting cafés.”
Then it cuts to the chase: “Equally captivating was a mademoiselle he met by chance, who went by the name of Mimi…”
Turns out Arthur J. never did see his Mimi again, but he never forgot her, either. Thirty years later, in 1978, he opened Mimi’s Cafe, in Anaheim.
Fast-forward another 25 years, and — is it just me who missed this whole parade? — the Simms family open their, uh, 86th Mimi’s Cafe. Here in Santee. That was 2003. Now they’re up to 144 all around the country and counting. The killer is that, in February, Mimi’s was sold to an actual French restaurant giant, Groupe Le Duff.
“Come enjoy a taste of France,” says the menu. Uh-huh. With 144 locations, are we talking theme-park France?
Inside’s nice, though. Big reception area with a warm feeling, comfy chairs, and a gas fireplace burning away. There are different rooms with different flavors. Like, garden, café, bistro, winery, patio.
Except…my all-you-can-eat soup ’n’ salad? Deal’s off.
“Sorry,” says the hostess. “That offer is for lunchtime only, 11:00 to 4:00. But we have others.”
She hauls out a bunch of different, glossy, full-color menus. Points to the top of the dinner one. “Mimi’s Bistro Meals... Three-course dinner is $13.99.”
“That includes soup or salad, an entrée, and a dessert,” she says. “Do you like fresh apple cinnamon crisp?”
Uh, yes. And as I think about it, 14 buckeroos for three courses ain’t half bad. So, I go sit by the cozy fire and check out the menu. First thing I see — dang! — is that at lunchtime this same deal is $9.99. Okay, there are only a couple of variations. But both have steak among the entrée choices.
That’s smart: they don’t harness you in to one or two mean little choices.
Like, with the soup, you can have corn chowder, French onion, roasted-tomato-and-basil bisque, or a “soup du jour.” Today’s is something with Andouille sausages in it.
Or, you can have a garden or Caesar salad.
The entrées look pretty cool: seafood fettuccine, chicken madeira crêpes (or plain chicken madeira), or a top sirloin steak. Or, hey, grilled salmon Florentine. That’s with spinach, bacon, horseradish, and small potatoes. Or you can get butternut-squash ravioli and garlic shrimp in a cheesy cream sauce.
I head for one of the dining areas. The bistro. Cream walls, blue windows, antique gold lamps. The end wall’s got a balcony upstairs set with bistro tables and half-drunk glasses of wine, as if real people were dining up there. In front of the red-and-white-tiled kitchen, a sign says, “Laisser Les Bons Temps Rouler.”
Okay, bébé. Let’s do just that.
Jennifer comes up. She’s got on a long, black-and-white-striped butcher’s apron, and she wants to know if I’d like something to drink.
Iron discipline: “Water, with a slice of lemon.”
“And to eat?” Jennifer asks.
I’m ready. “French-onion soup, top sirloin steak, and…oh, boy.”
I come unstuck at the desserts. Bread pudding? Apple cinnamon crisp? Chocolate brownie sundae? Chocolate mousse?
It being a three-course package deal, I assume you have to order everything now. Wrong.
“We can decide that later,” Jennifer says.
The French-onion soup is good. If I hadn’t had that fantastic one at Cafe Bleu a couple of weeks back, I’d be singing this one’s praises. It’s mildly savory, with bread and onions swimming, and two cheeses — Swiss and provolone — sealing up the top of the little white china pot. Just doesn’t have that sharp kick, or an especially interesting taste. But, hey, it’s a nice soup, and there’s plenty.
When the steak comes, it’s tender, rare, like I asked. It sits on a bed of mashed spuds, but still looks a bit naked, because there’s nothing else on the big, square plate. And, have to say, not much taste to the meat. I could have splotted A1 sauce, but then Jennifer suggests cheese. She brings out a little pot. The dressing’s hot and liquidy — and delivers. Ahh! Flavor.
By now, I’m stuffed. But no way am I leaving till I get my just desserts.
In the end, I go for the fresh apple cinnamon crisp. It’s dee-licious. Crispy, yes, with lots of stewed apple chunks swimming around hot under a chill blanket of vanilla ice cream. Nice cinnamon flavor. Best moment of da meal…except for when RJ, one of the staff, comes up with two big muffins, a molasses-and-bran one, and an apple-and-brown-sugar one. “It’s our gift for first-time customers,” he says.
Wow. Where else would you get that?
I have to try the molasses and bran. One chomp. Now, there’s flavor. It’s beautifully soft under the crust.
I come out of this “old” house $15.11 poorer. (Plus one dollar: they’re supporting a heart campaign. But with that I get $3 off the next visit, so it’s all good.) There is a bit of a French mall-feel here, and the flavor of the meat might have needed a kick, but for a three-course meal, I feel pretty darned good.
And stretched like a drum.
Prices: French-onion soup, $5.49; petite stuffed potatoes with cheese, bacon, $3.99; blue cheese and walnut salad, $8.59; French Quarter burger with avo, bacon, cheese on sourdough, $10.99; petite filet steak, with steamed veggies, greens, $17.99; three-course dinner special with, e.g., French-onion soup, top sirloin steak and mash, and triple-chocolate brownie sundae, $13.99 ($9.99 at lunchtime)
Hours: 7:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m. daily
Buses: 832, 833, 834, 870
Nearest Bus Stop: Santee Town Center
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest trolley stop: Santee Town Center