The most underestimated breakfast food in the arsenal is the meatball. There’s something about garlic-studded pork spheres, screaming awake in a sizzling-hot pan, that sends an ancestral happiness ricocheting down the strands of your DNA. Meatballs are a serene village vacation compared with the gray static that you feel when you peel open a sad rectangle of a granola bar.
Meatballs are little spheres of nostalgia for chef Reyna Duong. Surrounded by her aunts and older sisters, a bowl of bánh tam bì xíu mai — Vietnamese pork balls on a bed of thick noodles and bean sprouts, splashed by coconut milk and dark fish sauce — would show up regularly at her childhood table. For breakfast, a traditional Vietnamese option might be shards of baguette, fresh cilantro, jalapeño and meatballs cloaked in tomato sauce. You tear bread, dip into sauce and press with meatballs.
Duong, chef at Sandwich Hag, has turned this meatball morning meal into one of the best banh mi in the city. It’s only available when there is time.
“It takes so long to make, but it has to,” says Duong of her chef’s special, which is offered, for now, when she can take a deep breath and muster up the basic strength to make it. “It’s not a meatball until your back hurts when you’re done.”
Her meatball sandwich is a seemingly simple order — the ingredients end up as sauce-bathed meatballs, fresh cilantro and jalapeños sitting in a soft, crackly baguette. The process, however, docks Duong hours of time. Meatballs aren’t truly meatballs until spheres of pork (or veal or both) pass back in forth between palms — rapidly patting and firing them into the other hand — to become loose planet shapes. You should sweat and hurt a little, like Ray Liotta's sickly character at the end of Goodfellas.
Duong starts her xíu mai recipe on Sunday. She grinds the pork, hand-mixing it with fine dices of jicama and onion. There is lots of black pepper.
“You can’t use a machine,” she says.
The pork balls steam, juice and fat escaping in rivers. Into the bubbling cauldron of tomato sauce go the juices and rich fats of the pork. Duong reduces and stirs and watches. The perfect meatball sub is one that finds the right balance of sensations. Tender, soft and resistant meat needs a veneer of sauce, not a deluge. The baguette crust should break like a shell, revealing chewiness inside. Soggy shouldn’t be a word that enters your mind, and herbs should be the light at the end of the richness tunnel.
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On Tuesday, Duong's meatball banh mi, offered as her chef’s special (available until she runs out), has each of these sensations. The meatballs come cloaked in a red sauce that's tangy with tomato and garlic, a brightness that counters the heavily salted stuff you’d find elsewhere. Duong doesn’t salt her sauce; she lets the pork’s fatty juices do the natural salting for her. Sprigs of cilantro are a breath of fresh air. It’s a few ingredients, nursed for hours and cradled on bread.
“It has to cook down to a consistency that I deem is perfect. That’s why it takes so long. It’s a layering process,” she says. “It’s very fragile.”
The best sandwiches, the ones you remember and crave for days after the first time you order them, are served family style on day one and in between bread on day two. The warmth and comfort of a family meal, served tomorrow on a baguette, is what Sandwich Hag achieves. You’ll just need to wait to get it.
Sandwich Hag, 1902 S. Lamar St.