One of the complaints I’ve heard most frequently from Dallas chefs and food industry members is that we’re not supportive enough of each other. Hospitality workers rarely get quality time to hang out together and express their love for each other — because at all the normal times when people do those things, chefs are at work.
All of this is to say that Sunday’s mini-festival at Four Corners Brewing Co. was a heartwarming moment in the Dallas food business for many reasons. Most of all, it represented Dallas restaurant industry rookies and veterans banding together to show support for one of their own.
HagFest, as the event was called, was a fundraiser and unofficial victory celebration for Reyna Duong, the founder of beloved banh mi shop Sandwich Hag. Duong recently suffered a perforated intestine, an injury so alarming I didn’t have the courage to ask about it. She spent a week in the hospital, and luckily she’s back on her feet and cooking again.
This being America, Duong was left with a tall stack of medical bills. But this being Dallas, her friends — led by Anastacia Quinoñes of José — banded together to organize a relief party, HagFest. Chefs’ Produce donated ingredients; Cattleack Barbeque donated a whole hog.
About a dozen booths in Four Corners’ event space showcased the vibrancy and diversity of the Dallas food scene (and of Duong’s friends). Khao Noodle Shop was there, fresh off its coronation by Bon Appétit as one of America’s best new restaurants. And so were a number of fresh-faced pop-up businesses which, if there’s justice in the world, will follow Khao’s path to fame.
I was especially delighted by two Filipino tables, Ulam Modern Filipino Kitchen and Not Your Lola’s, which presented contrasting pork belly dishes. Ulam sliced the belly thin and served it in an impromptu musubi, with a small pile of garlic fried rice and a single thin slice of ferocious bird's-eye chili pepper.
Not Your Lola’s offered big, thick cubes of meaty braised belly, with the skin golden and crispy. The belly perched precariously on a cracker of black and white sesame seeds — a substantial few bites, or an extremely large single bite in the case of guest and local barbecue impresario Brandon Mohon, who devoured his in one go.
Momo Shack presented its plump, excellent Nepalese dumplings with a deceptively fiery tomato sauce and a cilantro-based sauce to help tame the heat. Quiñones, in addition to helping organize the whole event, prepped deeply flavored birria tacos on black bean tortillas. SneakerBaby presented its signature Cheez-It flavored macarons; they’re well worth trying with a group of friends, because they always inspire a lively debate about the whole idea of Cheez-It macarons.
Taco y Vino and Ka-Tip Thai, which just opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant at the Dallas Farmers Market, cooled our palates down with, respectively, a crispy taco of seared and chilled ahi tuna and a mellow salad of corn and yellow cherry tomatoes. Then, once I’d gotten all the spice calmed down, Khao Noodle Shop opened the floodgates again with a housemade rice porridge with plenty of pork fat, pork floss and hot chile oil.
Duong told me that she was “overwhelmed” by both the turnout and the support of her fellow chefs.
“I can’t talk about it without crying,” she said.
But of course she couldn’t help upstaging the whole event. Sandwich Hag and Cattleack Barbeque’s Jacob Karns collaborated on a dish that piled high barbecued whole hog, cabbage slow, pickled veggies, nuoc cham and pork cracklings — all on top of a fried egg. Sandwich Hag pickled the radishes; Cattleack pickled the onions.
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It was a minor miracle of a dish. Nuoc cham, it turns out, is the perfect barbecued pork condiment, with lively acidity and bite to slice through all that fat. The day after HagFest, Cattleack dropped a minor bombshell: They’re replacing pulled pork with whole hog on the menu every Friday. May that hold true for years to come.
Without a doubt, HagFest was one of the food events of the year. It brought together major-league Dallas chefs like Quiñones, Bbbop’s Sandra Bussey and Khao Noodle’s Donny Sirisavath, plus talented cooks who have the chops to follow in their footsteps to national recognition. I can’t wait to see more from the likes of Not Your Lola’s, Ulam, Momo Shack and Ka-Tip Thai.
And, of course, HagFest was also unforgettable for what it represented. Half of the chefs had just been featured in a national magazine, and half hadn’t, but that didn’t matter. What counted was that they were all united in support of a colleague in need. There’s a message here: Dallas chefs stick together, and they take care of their own. There’s a new generation of food leadership in town, and that generation is going to make this industry a more compassionate place to work.