If you haven't visited Flint lately, you've been missing out.
The city in 2018 appears to be emerging from under the dark cloud of the water crisis, though there's still plenty of unfinished business on that front. Regardless, one of the positive stories is all that's going on around food. Several chefs have described Flint to Metro Times as being where Detroit was just a few years ago, when there were limited dining options. But several forces — an improving economy, growing interest in local foods, a robust urban agriculture community, an awareness of food's social component, the emergence of talented chefs, and an impressive level of diversity for a place not particularly known for it — are converging to create something pretty special.
One of the focal points of all that is the Flint Farmers Market. The market may seem small for those who are used to Detroit's Eastern Market, the nation's largest and oldest outdoor market, but it's an apples to oranges comparison. The Flint Market is indoors, open three days a week, and has a different vibe than anything you'll find around metro Detroit. In this case, small is good — there isn't a superfluous vendor, and whomever runs the show manages to maximize every inch. That's something that you really can't do when you have acres of floor space to cover.
One of the market's best corners is that occupied by MaMang, the Vietnamese-inspired counter run by chef Tony Vu. Vu's cuisine is Vietnamese at heart, but it's often fused with other nations' dishes — like the Texas brisket pho that packed Detroit's Lager House during a February pop-up. Moreso than any other outstate chef, Vu's buzz is cutting through all the noise and excitement generated about Detroit's new and upcoming chefs and restaurateurs.
MaMang's steady menu has three types of pho, a pork banh mi, a Peking duck bao, and spring rolls. Specials rotate in and out, and this week's bulgogi banh mi comes with a pile of thin-sliced, slightly sweet and salty Korean bulgogi beef. That's served on crusty buns with mayo, pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, cilantro, and jalapeños. While it's excellent, the pork banh mi is superior: Vu lays down thin slices of Chinese barbecue pork that was marinated in soy sauce and Chinese five spice, then adds honey and red braises to the point that — as he put it — it's nearly candied.
You'll probably be surprised to learn that MaMang's banh mi buns are not locally sourced, but instead come from a lil' old bakery called Walmart. Should I be ashamed to admit my discerning buds didn't know? Vu says he's been unable to find a local baker who does strong Vietnamese banh mi buns that are airy and somewhat chewy on the inside, and slightly crispy on the outside. For whatever reason, Walmart has it down.
The fried spring rolls' are filled with super flavorful ground pork, but the remaining contents are a secret, as it's made off of Vu's mom's recipe which he swore he would never reveal. Dip the crunchy shell in a housemade nuoc nam, a pungent, fish sauce-based condiment that Vu describes as "Vietnam's ketchup," but is much more interesting.
Also a secret between Vu and his mom are the contents of his pho's broth, but it's safe to say that it's a star anise and ginger-spiked liquid that dances with cinnamon, basil, cilantro, and green onion. It's deep, partly because the broth that Vu served on Tuesday was prepared on Monday. He plunks oxtails and beef bones in the pot, boiling them free of the broth-deepening fat. The beef meatballs that came with the beef pho are excellent, but for three bucks more it was the folds of thin-sliced, rare tenderloin that lit up the brain's pleasure circuits. The chicken pho is solid, but the beef is even better.
The biggest disappointment of the trip was the sold out sign posted on the menu next to the Peking duck bao. Please cover that up so I don't know what I'm missing.
As wonderful as the Flint Farmers' Market is, MaMang's days there are numbered. Vu says he is planning a standalone location for which he's targeting a spring 2019 opening (he also opened a Traverse City restaurant called The Good Bowl in the summer). Vu says he's amassed enough feedback on different items through the rotating special to form a menu. Though it will be a loss to the market, it seems there's enough happening in Flint's food scene that it can be replaced.
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