If I have my way, it’s gonna be a mellow summer of soft breezes, hammock naps and a steady supply of nuoc cham. Anyway, that’s the declaration I made last Friday as a friend and I left Ma Mì in Closter. For the uninitiated, nuoc cham is a dipping sauce served with dishes like rice noodles. To the consternation of busy Vietnamese restaurant waiters everywhere, I always request the sauce. There’s just something incredibly cravable about the vinegary-sweet-salty-umami punch. It’s simultaneously flavor-packed and delicate—an elegant, if all-too-easily-slurpable example of the pervasive genius of Vietnamese food.
Which, by the way, is fully on display at Ma Mì, the fast-casual little brother of Simply Vietnamese in neighboring Tenafly, opened by chef KT Tran Diovisalvo in 2010 based on the teachings of her mother. KT’s son Joseph Diovisalvo opened Ma Mì in 2017. (The family legacy was on full display when Fios 1 News visited Simply Vietnamese in February of this year). The name “Ma Mì” is a play on “mom,” but “Mì” also refers to the noodles and sandwiches on the menu. Like Simply Vietnamese, Ma Mì takes some gentle liberties without losing sight of the core cuisine—think spicy jerk beef, pad Thai dumplings and buttermilk fried chicken banh mì.
My friend and I decided on a mix of traditional and funky. It was a warm day (finally!) so we started with a classic veggie-packed summer roll and less traditional spicy jerk beef bao. This after we’d already chomped down a mini tower of impossibly light shrimp chips with a side of chili dip that cost just $1.50 (I’d happily pay that for the beautifully fruity-sweet chili sauce alone). The summer roll was massive, and halved, packed with crunchy green beans, purple cabbage, sweet carrots, shredded iceberg, a bit of toothsome vermicelli, all wrapped tight in translucent, chewy rice paper. (Pro tip: order two peanut dipping sauces if you’re as condiment-greedy as I am; it also helps make the appetizer more substantial).
The bao—which Jersey does elsewhere in more and less traditional Chinese dishes—was fantastic. The pillowy bao buns cradled spicy-sweet, meltingly tender brisket with a cold crunch from barely-pickled carrots and fresh cilantro. With two per order at just $5, I plan on multiple bao next time. Also, definitely the duck with hoisin, and of course it’s only responsible food journalism to check out the traditional char siu ground pork.
For dinner, my friend picked “From the Grill,” which is where Ma Mì does either rice or rice noodle-based veggie or protein mains. He got the grilled pork, though we were both curious about the “Basa,” which the cashier told us was a traditional Vietnamese fish (and, says the Internet, may or may not be a kind of catfish). The noodles came topped with scallions, greens, and some crispy onions—with two sides of nuoc cham. One mistake on our part was not ordering the fried egg for $1.50 extra, so the noodles were sadly denied extra yolky goodness. Next time.
Also next time, as long as it’s still on the (short, efficient) menu, the spicy Ma Mì with that aforementioned buttermilk fried chicken and spicy Asian slaw. This time around I wanted to try “The Original,” consisting of sweet grilled pork on a lightly toasted chewy baguette with pickled vegetables, fresh cilantro, fresh jalapeno, and creamy aioli. If you’re weird about stuff like this like me, you’ll be pleased to know the proportion of bread to sandwich innards was near perfect. The “Pho Dip” sandwich also looks promising, playing up the Vietnamese-French (dip sandwich) connection; it’s a brisket sandwich with hoisin and sriracha and a side of broth.
The space, by the way, is nice and light and quiet—halfway up Durie Avenue, with big windows, a few tables, white tile walls, and not much else. Somewhere else, that might seem bare, but here—with a steady flow of takeout traffic coming in almost non-stop to pick up their food—it was actually calming. You can linger in the late spring sunset without feeling like you need to hurry up. Speaking of lingering, if you’re not sensitive to significant amounts of caffeine or sugar in your after dinner drink, go for the Vietnamese iced coffee, made the traditional way with sweetened condensed milk and surprisingly balanced, with a rich, round dark coffee flavor underlying the almost chewy sheen of the sweetened condensed milk. Worst case scenario, you have a bit of extra energy after the meal, which should help you figure out what to do with your leftover extra nuoc cham.
Ma Mì, 546 Durie Avenue, Closter; 201-660-7826. Open 10:30am to 8:30pm Tuesday through Sunday. You can order delivery through DoorDash or Uber Eats.