Vietnamese resto's 'peculiar smell' takes New York

By Duc Trung   May 20, 2023 | 05:00 am PT
Vietnamese resto's 'peculiar smell' takes New York
Nhung Dao Head and Jerald Head at their fermented shrimp paste noodles restaurant in New York, U.S. Photo obtained from Instagram/
A Vietnamese noodle joint has been cooking up attention in New York City with the pungent aroma of fermented shrimp paste in MAM NYC's signature dish: Bun dau mam tom.

Jerald Head, a young American cook, first met Nhung Dao, an office worker in Ho Chi Minh City, one fall day in 2016.

Jerald was in Vietnam to study its culinary tradition.

A year later, just after he became the head chef at a Vietnamese restaurant in New York City, Jerald returned to Vietnam to take Nhung's hand in marriage.

Nhung relocated to the U.S. with her husband in 2020 amid the Covid-19 outbreak, which forced many New York restaurants, including Jerald's, to close down.

However, having been rendered jobless turned out not to be the worst thing in the world for Jerald: in September of that year the city began allowing restaurants to sell take-out and even serve diners outside on the sidewalk (just like Vietnam).

Hearing opportunity knock, Nhung and Jerald decided to open "MAM," a pop-up Vietnamese food stall opposite a park in Chinatown, Manhattan.

"Mam" means fermented foods, and their main dish was "Bun dau mam tom" (rice vermicelli with fried tofu and fermented shrimp paste), a special noodle soup that was the centerpiece of several of their first dates in Vietnam. It is also one of the hardest Vietnamese dishes to find in the U.S. It's not even that easy to find in Vietnam sometimes. The novelty of their signature soup was what drove so many people to the restaurant their first opening week.

"Word of mouth spread and people left reviews online, helping our dish spread quickly among the Vietnamese community in New York," Nhung said.

"We targeted Vietnamese people, so we didn't try to adjust the spices to Western taste. We just wanted to recreate that original taste as much as possible."

Nhung and Jerald made the tofu themselves because they said the tofu available in the U.S. was too dry, hard and "tasted industrial," unlike Vietnamese tofu, which is soft and rich. They brought tofu-making machines from Vietnam, and used traditional recipes from Nhung's relatives in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai to make homemade Vietnamese tofu fresh every day.

Nhung also made "Cha com" (Green sticky rice patties), while Jerald cooked the pig innards, another part of the dish, using a recipe from Nhung's father. The couple bought their "Asian" herbs from Grand Street in Chinatown because a vendor there was importing them from the swampy southern United States, where the muggy climate is similar to Vietnam's.

But the only place in the city they could find the star of the dish, mam tom (fermented shrimp paste), was at a supermarket.

"The mam tom at the U.S. supermarket has an okay quality and is sellable, though it's not as good as we would have wanted," Nhung said. So the couple decided to source their stinky shrimp paste straight from Vietnam instead.

"Choosing good mam tom in Vietnam is not easy. After a place recommended to us in Thanh Hoa Province (in central Vietnam) passed our taste test, it was as if we had struck gold," she added.

People enjoy rare Vietnamese dishes with fermented shrimp paste "mam tom" on street-side plastic stools at MAM NYC in New York. Video obtained from Instagram/

When the Covid-19 situation began to lessen in May 2022, the couple turned their pop up into a restaurant – "MAM NYC" – at the same location as their food stall in Chinatown. The place became a hit and the New York Times ranked MAM at 26th among the 100 best restaurants in the city.

A portion costs $32 and includes rice vermicelli, fried tofu, green sticky rice patties, pork, innards, fermented shrimp paste and assortments of herbs. The shrimp paste itself is mixed with sugar, lemon juice and chili.

"Americans think that Vietnamese food is only a low-budget item. But they don't know that it takes effort and passion to create a Vietnamese dish with original taste," Nhung said.

Pete Wells, a restaurant critic for the New York Times, said MAM NYC "serves the most exciting Vietnamese food in New York" in an April article. He praised the shrimp sauce and "bright" herbs, and described the crispy tofu's soft insides as similar to mozzarella sticks.

"Sitting on a plastic stool in the street eating tofu from a bamboo tray while pedestrians and dogs and e-bikes and regular bikes and mopeds pass in both directions may be as close as you can get in Manhattan to lunch hour in Hanoi," Wells wrote.

When first-timers come to the restaurant, Nhung often mentions that the mam tom might "smell and taste peculiar," but it's both necessary and delicious.

"Even some Vietnamese can't eat mam tom, but I always encourage customers to try. If they can't handle it, we have fish sauce as a replacement," Nhung said.

During Tet this year, Nhung and Jerald visited Vietnam and returned with 100 liters of mam tom. But now, even though they're only open on weekends, the shop is almost out of the ingredient.

Jerald said it takes hours to cook the innards and the cha com. He added that they serve about 100 bowls of noodle soup a day.

"We are always overwhelmed," said Nhung. "Customers often have to make reservations and line up outside for at least 30 minutes."

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