A bowl of love – that’s what you’ll find at MaMang, an eatery at the Flint Farmers’ Market specializing in Vietnamese cuisine.
Pho is a delicious Vietnamese broth soup, spiced with ginger, cinnamon, Star Anise, cloves and other spices. The dish also includes fresh noodles, cilantro, Thai basil, onions, jalapeños and bean sprouts. Customers choose the spice level and can add in proteins, such as filet mignon, smoked brisket or Kobe beef.
“Our Beef Pho is the favorite,” boasts owner and chef, Tony Vu. “The way I make it and present it is medicinal.” The bone broth (beef or oxtail) is known for its health benefits and each spice in the recipe is a very powerful Chinese medicine in its own right. “It’s a bowl of love,” Tony smiles. “It’s very nutritious and the best cure for a headache, cold, or hangover. It just makes you feel better!”
“My mother gave me her years of experience and I know exactly how the food should taste.”
According to Chef Vu, Vietnamese cuisine is a balance of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (Japanese word for sweet-savory flavor), as well as a variety of textures – crispy, salty, tender and chewy. The eatery is named after Tony’s mother, Kim Vu. “MaMang was my pet name for my mom when I was growing up,” he shares.
MaMang has been open for one year now, and getting there was quite a journey for the young chef. His parents were born and raised in Vietnam where his father, Dr. Hoat Vu, was a military flight surgeon. When the Vietnam War ended, they came to the United States on one of the last helicopter flights out of the country. His father was completing a residency at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Flint when Tony was born.
The family moved to Millington, where Dr. Vu was the country doctor, making house calls to residents of the small farm community. Tony graduated from Powers Catholic High School and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. After graduation, he moved to Chicago and worked in the IT field, but the job left him completely drained.
“I thought to myself, there has to be more to life than this,” he admits. So, he hit the reset button and began doing contract work, traveling around the world. The future chef had a vivid, recurring dream in which he stood on a mountain overlooking a valley with a large, beautiful peak in the background. Tony was shocked when he saw the exact image from his dream in a travel ad for Peru. “I went to Peru and had the most amazing experience of my life!” he exclaims.
Upon his return home, Tony found himself at a crossroad as to his future. In Peru, he had met a lot of street cooks and had many food-centered experiences. One day, he got lost in the jungle while looking for a waterfall. He stopped at an old farm to ask for directions, but there was a language barrier. With hand gestures, the farmer invited him to share a meal. They sat down on the dirt floor and Tony was served very simple but deliciously prepared plantains, river fish and chicken. “It was so delicious, so perfect for the moment,” Tony says. “We found something in common through food.” Tony then went to Vietnam for a couple of months, where he met one of the best chefs in the country. “He took me in like a brother,” he says. “I was so excited about the street food in Southeast Asia.”
“I am proud to be fulfilling my vision right here in Flint.”
After all these experiences – finally – Tony felt like he knew what he wanted to do with his life. Flint had been going through hard times, but he saw it as a “city of hope” and believed he could share his experiences with food and other cultures with area residents. He and a couple of his friends bought an old food truck and worked for about a year to bring it up to code. Tony learned to cook Vietnamese recipes from his mother, which proved to be a difficult task because she never measured anything. His family had owned a popular Vietnamese restaurant on Dort Highway, The Golden Sea Horse, which is now closed. “My mother is an amazing cook!” exclaims Tony. “She gave me her years of experience and I know exactly how the food should taste.” He perfected three dishes and served them on the food truck at the old Farmers’ Market, gaining followers of the cuisine.
Now at the new market, MaMang’s menu is ever-changing with dishes such as Banh Mi – a protein garnished with pickled carrots, daikon, cucumbers, cilantro, jalapeños and mayo, nestled in a toasted French baguette. Another popular dish is Banh Boa – Peking Duck piled on a steamed bun and topped with chives and a special sauce. Occasionally, some family recipes are served, such as Cha Gio, a fried pork spring roll described as “an incredibly savory, crunchy delight on the outside and chewy on the inside.”
Last year, Tony was invited to interview for a segment on the Food Network after they became interested in him during the Local 432’s 30th anniversary celebration where chefs from around the country were spotlighted. After the interviewing process, he was offered a spot on Guy’s Grocery Games, a culinary competition series that aired on February 21. Tony made it through the first two rounds, but lost in the final competition. “It was a cool experience,” he says.
The past year has been a rewarding one for Tony. “I love being at the Farmers’ Market; it’s such a great place,” he says, adding that he gives much credit for his success to his friends who helped get the business started, and to his staff. “The crew works well together,” says Tony. “We also socialize; it’s like a big family.” His mother has also been an integral part of the business.
Most of all, Tony is happy to be following his dream in Flint. “It’s an amazing city and I am very fortunate to do this here,” he shares. “I am proud to be fulfilling my vision right here.”
Photography by Eric Dutro