Cooking channel visits Saigon 39

12/17/2013 4:00 PM

12/17/2013 4:03 PM

Cooking Channel’s new “Restaurant Redemption” show was in town recently to record a segment at locally owned Saigon 39.

The restaurant, at 1806 1/2 W. 39th St., was founded more than two decades ago by Mimi Perkins, on tips she saved from waiting tables.

Now her children, Linda Bruce and Victor Perkins, are at the helm and “business has plummeted,” according to the reality show. The siblings prefer to say sales have “dropped.”

“Restaurant Redemption” swooped in in late August, filming for about four days after five days of preproduction work. The Saigon 39 segment has recently been airing on the Cooking Channel.

Host Ching-He Huang had some strong advice: Bring the dishes and the decor into the 21st century. She also said Mimi Perkins, who is “retired” but still the “boss,” needs to step back and let her children run Saigon 39.

Still, Huang questioned whether Victor was capable of “owning” the kitchen or if he really wanted to.

“If you are afraid, fine. But get over it,” she said in a recent phone interview.

Huang and her crew gave the kitchen a good scrubbing and reorganization. After tasting some of the restaurant’s specialties, she declared them bland, as well as too Americanized and lacking in freshness and flavor.

She showed Saigon 39 how to make some new items, like Bánh mì — described as a Vietnamese sandwich — using pork belly, chicken liver pate and fresh vegetables.

The crew also gave the dining room a makeover, getting rid of some of the more kitschy Asian items, plastic flowers and bland paint colors.

Now Saigon 39 has a more upscale French Vietnamese motif with bright blue walls “like the ocean,” on one side, a more casual Vietnamese cafe on the other and a sitting area in front where customers can have a Bánh mì and cup of Vietnamese coffee.

Huang said she looks for the light bulb to go off with the chef, owner and/or staff that says: “We could do this. Why haven’t we done this sooner?”

“We gave them a new lease on life with the show, and time will tell if they keep up the quality of the food and the service,” she said.

But Victor said he respects his mother’s legacy, too much to make many menu changes. Customers still ask for her if she isn’t in the restaurant and the original menu items are still customer favorites.

Still, the siblings do plan to add Bánh mì to the menu in January — but will use their mother’s recipe.

The show also has created a buzz, bringing in some customers they haven’t seen in awhile.

“I think the show put a little fire into us,” Linda Bruce said.

A place to Escape in the Northland

The Escape Eatery Drinkery opened in the Northland earlier this year as a Hawaiian-themed restaurant and bar.

The strip center spot at 240 N.E. Barry Road, just east of Metro North Shopping Center, had once housed Ivy’s restaurant.

But general manager Keilani Fowler said it really wasn’t working as a restaurant, maybe because the strip center also could use a makeover.

So Escape shut down for awhile and revamped under new ownership.

Now called just The Escape, it is more restaurant than bar. The dining room has been turned into a game room with pool tables and darts.

The bar now features happy hour specials and events — dollar draws on Thursday, 10 cent wings on Sunday, karaoke on Wednesday and more.

Fowler said she is now a partner with managing partner Wayne Steckelberg. That gives her more freedom to make changes quickly.

While Escape will still keep some of its popular menu items like the fish tacos and hand-breaded tenderloins, Fowler plans to add some new items in January.

The operation also has two private dining areas for special events.

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