Nhung Dao does not remember the first time she ate bún dau mam tôm; when she was growing up in Vietnam, it was just there. It is, in many ways, an ideal lunch: A spread of proteins, carbs, and vibrant herbs, all dipped into a potent shrimp sauce that invigorates each bite. “People would get some tofu, they’d get some noodles, and they’d bring it all home,” she says. The dish is a speciality of stalls and restaurants around Hanoi, but it remained elusive in New York — until Dao and her husband Jerald Head started Mam, a weekends-only pop-up on the northern edge of Chinatown.
The project — which is open for dinner on Fridays and lunch on Saturdays and Sundays — takes its name from mam tôm, the fermented-shrimp sauce into which everything else on the bún dau platter gets dipped. Calling it “strong” is like calling ripe French cheese “stinky”: technically accurate, but terribly inadequate. More precise is the description that Vietnamese food expert Helen Le once offered on her popular YouTube channel, saying bún đậu belongs to the category of foods that “smell like hell, taste like heaven.’”
The couple makes their mam tôm with shrimp paste imported from Vietnam, which they temper with sugar, lime juice, and fiery Thai chiles. From there, they build the dish, starting with a bamboo leaf and arranging the ingredients into a circle. There are cubes of golden fried tofu (made with a 60-pound machine Dao and Head lugged back from Vietnam) and blocks of spindly vermicelli noodles. Next comes the pig, or rather, the parts of the pig: crunchy grilled intestine, blood sausage (made with a recipe Head learned from Dao’s father), gently poached pork belly, and more grilled pork sausage, made with sticky rice, fish sauce, garlic, and shallots. On top, bright herbs such as diep cá and perilla that the couple purchases from “a woman who sells the plants out of a truck on Grand Street.”
The pop-up is an outgrowth of Head’s cooking at Di an Di, the Greenpoint restaurant where he was previously the chef de cuisine, and where he first introduced his version of bún đậu on the restaurant’s brunch menu. That was in 2019, and he’s been working on it ever since. “This is way, way better,” he says of the version he has now.
Word of the pop-up has also started to spread among the city’s Vietnamese food lovers. “When we found out there’s a restaurant that sells bun dau, we were all so excited,” says Thanh Nhat Hua, a Columbia student who grew up in southern Vietnam. Since the pop-up showed up in May, he’s already been 7 times. “It is exceeding my expectations,” he reports.
Dao and Head have also been tweaking Mam’s menu to include other specialities, such as stuffed snails, whole grilled fish, and “some OG hits like jerky with ants,” as Head puts it. (That dish is a jerky of dry-aged beef with sour ants from Vietnam.) But for now, the main attraction remains the bún dau.It’s fully customizable, but the $35 deluxe spread comes with the works and is big enough to share. Just give the mam tôm a spin with your chopsticks, and then mix everything together.