‘Thank you Flint’: Popular Vietnamese restaurant MaMang closing after nearly a decade

FLINT, MI — Since she was a young girl, Saginaw resident Senta Gonzalez grew accustomed to trying food from across the globe in large part due to her father’s influence.

Without many options in Saginaw, especially in the 1970s, the late Carlos Gonzalez, began to take classes to learn other languages ​​and build relationships with classmates and instructors to learn more about traditions and rituals of food with his family first-hand.

“We didn’t understand it at the time, but we ate it and we loved it,” said Senta Gonzales of the Japanese, Italian, African and European dishes shared at their home’s dinner table. “My family, we bond through food and my father instilled that in us, for which I am forever grateful.”

One of the languages ​​and cultures Carlos Gonzales learned was Vietnamese, but he couldn’t find much authentic food in the region.

That is, until they discovered MaMang at the Flint Farmers’ Market in 2018.

Carlos, his daughter and Senta’s now 13-year-old ventured to the Vehicle City to give it a try.

Each had a bowl of Pho, and it quickly rose to the top of their favorites list, having returned countless times since.

“It was just something about the broth. It wasn’t even the noodles or the chicken, it was something about that hot broth. The first sip we took … it just warmed us to our souls,” Senta Gonzalez said. “We knew then, no matter what else would happen during the day, we knew we would be set.

“To hear they are closing, it almost brought a tear to my eye,” she said. “Just wow. It might seem silly to some people, but that broth, that food — its more than food. It’s part of our family’s story and bond.”

MaMang is closing April 30 after nearly a decade of serving customers homemade, authentic Vietnamese recipes.

“It’s the end of an era. I’m still trying to find the right words for it,” said Tony Vu, MaMang’s owner. “To say we’re shutting down is a little bit harsh, but as far as the operations and how everyone knows us here at the Market, that will unfortunately cease to exist. It’s been an incredible run.”

Vu said the pandemic had a part to play, but numerous factors and potential future opportunities led to its closure.

Taking a chance on tradition

Opening up the restaurant in Flint was filled with some twists and turns, just as any entrepreneurial start-up has, Vu said.

RELATED: Michigan chef to battle on Food Network’s ‘Guy’s Grocery Games’

A 2000 Flint Powers Catholic and University of Michigan graduate, Vu spent time working in audio and video production, information technology contracting work, as well as playing music for more than a decade.

But it was a few years ago after becoming burnt out on IT work that Vu decided to do some traveling, including extensive stays in Peru and southeast Asia.

He took his first trip to Vietnam — where Vu’s parents were born and raised — that served as part of the inspiration behind opening his own restaurant.

Dr. Hoat Vu and mom Kim Vu, operated the Golden Sea Horse restaurant for roughly a decade in the late 1980s and most of the ’90s on Dort Highway in Flint.

Tony Vu ​​took in the cooking scene in the country, including meeting top chef Duc Tran, street vendors and sampling different tastes.

“It was something I wanted to bring back home to Flint,” he said.

Tony Vu’s food truck parked in front of the Flint Farmers’ Market. (Photo provided by Tony Vu)

On a whim, Vu bought an old 1979 box truck for $3,000 that he cleaned up and converted into a food truck with his friends Brian LaForge and Chris Strimatter.

That was the birth of the Wraps N’ Rolls food truck, which he operated for six months in Flint in summer 2014, selling steamed rolls filled with proteins including Peking duck and Char Siu pork barbecue, as well as Pho.

Saw traveled back to Vietnam that winter, spending time with Tran.

“Within five minutes of meeting him, we just totally connected,” he said. “He took me on like a brother. I ended up staying with him and his family for two weeks.”

“It was really inspiring to see somebody at the top of their game, this master chef,” he said, of Tran, who operates restaurants including Mango Mango in Hoi An, a central Vietnamese town along the South China Sea coast. “That was really cool to see someone who is an artist with food and essentially see that kind of expression.”

A second, unexpected inspiration came from Co Mai, his sister’s landlord in Saigon, the city where Vu’s parents managed to leave the country via helicopter near the end of the Vietnam War, that has supported her family based on the perfection a single dish: Hu Hey, a pork noodle soup.

“It was really incredible to see her life and how everything was built,” Vu said. “She literally has been cooking this one soup for 40 years or something.”

His own style mimics their movements and those of his mother — Vu’s biggest inspiration — in some senses, not relying on the measuring cup to be a guide in the final product.

“We’re very abstract, feeling out, tasting,” he said, adding there was some frustration at the start in learning from his mother.

“When I was first trying to learn her recipes and translate things, it was kind of frustrating for me because I was like, how much?” he laughed. “She was like, you just have to throw things in and taste it. When I went (to Vietnam), it’s a total intuitive way of cooking.”

Vu has put his own translation on his mother’s dishes, with a Korean Bulgogi-style and spicy Szechuan Bahn mi sandwich that’s normally served with Peking duck and variations of Pho with chicken and strip steak atop a steamed roll he described with an “almost pillowy texture .”

Local Eats: MaMang Vietnamese cuisine in Flint

An order of beef pho, which costs $10 at MaMang, located at 300 W First Ave. in Flint. (Isaac Ritchey | MLive.com)Issac Ritchey | MLive.com

Pho is an obsession for Vu and has been since the first time his mother showed him how to make it.

“I remember waking up in the morning, and the first thing I was hit with was the smell of that broth stewing overnight. And it’s making my hair stand up right now as I think about it,” he said. “That smell and that moment just filled me up with so much joy and so much excitement.

“I jumped out of bed, ran downstairs and my mom was already there in the kitchen. I asked her if I could eat Pho for breakfast, and of course, I did.”

And it’s that same recipe he has delivered in Flint for years.

While admitting it was a bit of a gamble as to whether a Vietnamese restaurant would work in Flint, with an engrained food culture around Coney dogs, barbecue, and burgers, Vu said the interest has grown since he opened in the market in summer 2015.

Local Eats: MaMang Vietnamese cuisine in Flint

An order of Wu-Tang Wings from MaMang at 300 W First Ave. in Flint. (Isaac Ritchey | MLive.com)Issac Ritchey | MLive.com

The menu continued to evolve over the years, and Vu found another hit in his “Wu-Tang Wings,” gluten-free chicken wings tossed with an in-house chili oil.

That growth never ceased as he continued to cultivate a culture through conversations about music, current events and the city’s livelihood with customers over the years.

Memories for a lifetime

A four-year faithful of MaMang, Melissa Collins was devastated to hear of the restaurant’s closing.

Collins, 34 of Flint, originally discovered the popular Pho dish after her mother Kelly Earegood, of Clio, urged her to try it, saying, “It’s like nothing else we have in this area.”

The mother-daughter duo was instantly hooked, so much so that they joked about getting lunch their together feels like they’re playing hooky.

“We joked; she would call me up asking if it would be a Pho Day. And we’d laugh,” Collins said. “Something about the Pho, it cures what ails you. Anytime she wouldn’t feel right, we would go.”

As COVID-19 halted many restaurants from delivering meals to their customers — whether a shortage of types of food or vegetables or even staffing, MaMang was impacted as well.

The restaurant did a “broth to go” option, which Collins took advantage of a lot over the last two years, especially after giving birth to her daughter Norah in April 2021.

MaMang closing

Flint resident Melissa Collins, left, poses for a photograph with her late mother Kelly Earegood of Clio. (Photo provided by Melissa Collins)

The restaurant did a “broth to go” option, which Collins took advantage of a lot over the last two years, especially after giving birth to her daughter Norah in April 2021.

Shortly after, Earegood, 60, fell ill, and she would bring that broth over to lift her mother’s spirits.

She did so for months until her mother died in September 2021.

“That really cheered her up. It felt like the good ol’ times. Even though we couldn’t be at the market with the hustle and bustle or the people watching, we could still bond at home enjoying something that always felt so special,” Collins said. “I never expected to lose my mother so quickly. We were basically best friends and spent a lot of time together. And those memories we made together at MaMang, I will always hold close to my heart.

“It’s bittersweet, I guess, because it’s something I would have loved to continue to share not only with my mother one more time, but also my daughter as she got older. I’m definitely going to miss it. I’m a big fan of real, homey food. And I will definitely miss being able to enjoy that with my mom.”

As Vu moves forward in his own journey, he sees his future in continuing to develop the Flint Social Club, which he founded and leads an effort in helping other chefs and community members build in on pop-up events and other opportunities to cook and sell their recipes, as well as other ventures.

Vu said the community can expect him to lead cooking classes, potentially in the market’s demonstration kitchen or online.

He also plans to teach how to make Pho and is seeking avenues to bottle and sell his chili sauces via retail.

MaMang, a popular Vietnamese restaurant at Flint Farmers' Market, closing after nine years

Tony Vu, owner of MaMang, will close the popular Vietnamese restaurant at the Flint Farmers’ Market on April 30. (Jake May | MLive.com)

Apart from people’s lives

On a recent Tuesday, 30 minutes before the lunch rush started, Vu reflected on his footprint in the Flint food scene.

He began to get a bit teary-eyed.

Vu talked about the comments he is hearing from his regular customers to what the food has meant to them and their families.

His food has changed lives and found its way as a deeply rooted necessity for many in the area.

Before MaMang, he said, many people in the area were unfamiliar with Vietnamese food.

A lot of residents didn’t know what Pho was, he laughed, “and now they love it as much, if not more than I do.”

“It’s truly a part of people’s lives, and part of their children’s lives, and their grandchildren’s lives,” Vu said. “It means so much to me that something so foreign can be really accepted.

“For me to see that transcendental and universal power of food in action, working its magic to bring everybody to a common table, that’s why I do this and it’s truly awesome.”

He said he will miss the people the most, both hustling to serve up dishes alongside his employees and seeing his customers.

“From the bottom of my heart, thank you Flint. I could have never anticipated the support and the relationships that have been built from not only the shop, but from sharing my family and my culture with the community,” Vu said. “I didn’t have these ambitions or didn’t see it going to this deep of a level. I was just starting a food truck and cooking my mom’s food that I at least knew my friends liked. I took a chance on that.

“Knowing that people can develop experiences and deep connections through food, having at least a part in helping create those rituals and memories that live on, that is everything to me. I will continue to do that. Thank you for accepting me with open arms. And Flint, you haven’t seen the last of me yet.”

Read more at The Flint Journal:

Colorful array of murals bring beauty to Michigan’s downtowns

This Michigan teenager aims to change Flint’s narrative, shine light on beauty of his hometown

‘The whole sky was black’: Neighbors worry fires will continue unless blight resolved

Leave a Comment