Tony Vu’s story is equal parts American dream and American dreamer. Born in Flint to parents of Vietnamese descent, and splitting time growing up between the city and the small farming community of Millington, Vu’s varied background translates seamlessly with the way he talks about food.
“It’s kind of like I’m playing music in a bowl,” says Vu, sitting back at his food counter tucked into the Flint Farmers’ Market. “Food has always brought me a lot of joy, inspiration, and happiness.”
The chef-artist-musician-entrepreneur-consummate Flint booster sports a hair bun, baseball cap, and black-rimmed glasses. Focused, yet cheerful. When talking about food or about Flint, Vu’s voice changes tone a bit. He leans in and becomes more dynamic.
“It’s kind of like jazz. You have a lot of tradition, but all these other elements and opportunities for your own interpretation,” he says, motioning toward a brewing pot of pho. “Every day, it’s a chance to put your own spin on it.”
The menu at MaMang includes at least three and often four items.
Pho, banh mi, banh bao, and usually a rotating special that is at Vu’s whim (pho fried chicken, pork spring rolls, Texas smoked brisket—you just never know).
All get rave reviews and at any given lunch hour, you can find such a large crowd gathered around the counter that newcomers sometimes have trouble figuring out how to actually get in line. (Just head right to the cash register.)
Open less than two years, MaMang is a delectable mixture of personal expression, heart, soul, and family tradition. MaMang’s signature dish is definitely the pho (pronounced fuh). It is a classic Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of bone-broth and 18 spices and ingredients. As a child, Vu would wake up to that rich aroma, go downstairs and eat pho for breakfast.
Eating pho is a spiritual experience, Vu says.
“It takes about 20 hours to make a broth, but that broth includes all these old traditional Asian medicinal herbs and spices that we’ve used over hundreds of years," he says. "So everyone that eats it gets an experience with each bowl that is interpretive, personal, and filling.”
Vu’s mother ran a Vietnamese restaurant in the city for 15 years. It was called the Golden Seahorse for most of those years, and it was Vu’s stomping grounds. His restaurant is even named after her; MaMang means Mama in Vietnamese.
“I always sort of knew that if I did end up working in food, I would honor her work in some way,” he says. “I want to share Vietnamese food, but I also wanted to pick back up from where my mom left off.”
After being in a band called Kinetic Stereo Kids for about 15 years, Vu wanted a change of pace. So, he traveled the world—and over time elevated his love of food from passionate hobby to career track. There wasn't an “ah-ha” moment that led him back home to open MaMang. There were, he says, "all these small moments that culminated to a vision."
“It all kind of just came together. I ended up meeting, not just incredible chefs, but incredible people along the way that became mentors to me,” Vu says. “It was a good point to reflect on how food can transcend, not just cultural barriers, but how food plays this profound role in bringing people together.”
After landing back in Flint, Vu knew he had to share his vision with his hometown. (He also shared it on the Food Network with an appearance on Guy's Grocery Games last year, but that's a different story.)
"I needed to share these experiences with my people, my home,” Vu recalls. “I figured I came from Flint and I was there in the city during some pretty dark times. So it’s important to be here, to share my skills for the turnaround, too."
MaMang is open at the Flint Farmers’ Market, 300 E. First St., 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays.
Vu hopes to expand to a store front eventually, but says, “the most important thing is, I want to be a part of Flint’s come back.”
Our tip: The menu is small, but delicious. The pho is a must-have, and don’t be too scared of the heat—medium is a perfect amount of kick for most. That said, given the likelihood for a runny nose and slurping noodles—stick with one of the sandwich options on a first date.