On my way to Mam Hanoi Restaurant on 10th Street, I passed a pre-holiday crowd bustling inside the confines of Lincoln Square Park. One man, costumed in Christmas greens and reds, teetered back and forth on stilts. With his jaunty hat slightly askew, he looked like one of Santa’s elves, but strangely elongated. While he chased some unseen thing—folly, perhaps—a dance troupe also entertained the meandering crowd.
Newly opened at the end of October, Mam is located in Chinatown directly across the street from the park. The clean, simply decorated, rectangular dining room isn’t large. Several tables sit up against the right and left walls. My guess is that due to the rise of the Omicron variant, the center of the restaurant is empty in order to limit the number of customers. But, my companion and I were close enough to the man sitting at the adjacent table to see and catch the scents emanating from his enormous bowl of soup, and he was kind enough to tell us he’d ordered the No. 7 phở ($15.50).
Described on the menu as spicy lemongrass beef, the broth he’d been served was dark, and pungent enough to entice us from a few feet away. Without fail, Mam serves up generous, plentiful portions. I’m not sure how a single person could slurp and sip and noodle their way through an entire bowl in one sitting. It’s really a lidless tureen. My friend arrived with an appetite. She ordered the beef rib noodle soup ($16), sighed with pleasure when she tasted the broth, diligently ladled it into her mouth, and at the end of the meal still had enough left over to fill a container for lunch the next day.
Alas, we ordered the Chinese donut ($5) too late, as an afterthought, and it never arrived. We played an unfortunate game of telephone between two servers. Not a dessert, the donuts are meant to be dipped in the phở. Simply order them when ordering the soup. For an appetizer, we tried the chicken salad ($12.50). I was pleased to discover a tangle of julienned green papaya cushioning the nest of ingredients. The crunch of papaya and carrots perfectly complemented the tender pieces of chicken. Mam’s Northern Vietnamese version of the salad also includes fresh mint and strips of yellow chicken skin.
One of my favorite dishes on hot summer days is a bowl of bun, or rice vermicelli. One bowl of Mam’s bun will stave off hunger for at least 24 hours. All the bun options, such as a grilled fish with dill or lemongrass beef, are listed under Chef’s Specials. There is no noodle section. Despite the late-afternoon December chill, we decided to try the No. 18 ($16.50), which comes with barbecue pork and a deep-fried egg roll. I’ve had this dish close to a million times before, but I really loved Mam’s version. The ingredients were just exceptionally fresh, from the noodles to the vegetables to the meat itself. The preparation, too, was spot on, including tender yet well-grilled pork.
The only dish I wouldn’t come back for is a grilled salmon with green beans ($16.50). That may have more to do with my preference for any kind of white fish over salmon. The flavors weren’t to blame, exactly, but it lacked the zing of the phở broth and the tang of fish sauce mixed into that bowl of bun.
To anyone planning an early night of bed rest and lucid dreaming: Don’t follow my lead. When we first sat down, I drank two cups of hot tea to warm up and then ordered a hot Vietnamese coffee ($4.50), too. The combination of the two different caffeines was so potent, I didn’t fall asleep until some time after 2am. Yes, the coffee tastes like the most addictive kind of candy, made specifically for adults, but it’s a high that’s awfully hard to come down from.