Once upon a time - a whopping 1.25 years ago - I worked at the Rockefeller Plaza in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. It's probably the coolest (and certainly the fanciest) place I've ever worked.
There were so many happening things going on in and around Rockefeller Center with NBC headquarters and Radio City Music hall just down the block, and an underground concourse that opened up on one side into the entryway of the famous Rockefeller ice skating rink. (Where I may or may not have spent an unseemly amount of time waiting around in hopes of a Tina Fey sighting. Shh, what?)
But of course, the biggest draw was much less about the city landmarks or star gazing (hi Tina!) and more about being right across the street from Num Pang, a local NYC chain that serves the most magical Cambodian sandwiches I've ever been blessed to have in my belly.
The menu has expanded pretty significantly since last I visited (rice bowls!!) but when I was around it was all about the sandwiches. They served a variety of proteins ranging from barbecue brisket to shrimp, pulled pork to roasted cauliflower, and served them all banh mi-style on the most perfect mini semolina baguette dressed with pickled veggies, cilantro, and chili mayo. Gah, they were incredible, and I miss them like crazy. And while I'm sure there's an equally amazing place here in SF to pick up the banh mi sandoozle of my dreams, I ran straight to the kitchen to make things right. You know how I do!
The version of banh mi you see here is as close to a Num Pang as I needed it to be. It’s pretty similar*, but more importantly, it's really satisfying and won't take long to get in your belly. The prep is straightforward and simple, the flavors are loud with plenty of funk and spice, and the recipe is infinitely adaptable. The meatballs here could easily be made with turkey instead of pork, and you could also substitute any type of protein you like - tofu or chicken would do just fine and leftover pork shoulder would be a dream! We like it best as shown here with pork meatballs, though I've got my eye on the roasted cauliflower version next...then probably the brisket after that...and ok, maybe the pulled pork again. I want them all! You know what, I say we forgo pumpkin everything this fall season and go full tilt booty on the pickled veggies and chili mayo. Banh mi season! Who's in?
As a Not Sad Desk Lunch: These sandwiches knocked it out of the park as a desk lunch and were just as easy to assemble at the office as they were at home. The only slightly irksome aspect is that transporting the ingredients required quite a few different containers – one for the dressing, one for the pickled veggies, a baggie for the bread, and a Tupperware for the meatballs with the cilantro thrown in there too. I used a larger than necessary Tupperware for the meatballs and then shoved all of the other small containers and bags in there too.
*Similar, that is, except for the bread. I've made these many times on a baguette, as banh mi is usually served. However, because I haven't yet nailed down a store in my new neighborhood where I can reliably purchase a crunchy-on-the-outside-chewy-on-the-inside baguette (as god intended) on a regular Tuesday, we made it most recently with two slices of thick country white bread and found it just as pleasing as ever.
Meatball Banh Mi Sandwiches, hacked in all kinds of ways from Mel’s Kitchen Cafe
Yields 4-6 sandwiches
2 large carrots, coarsely grated on a box grater
1 cucumber, seeded and sliced into thin matchsticks
1-2 jalapeños, thinly sliced (seeded and pith removed to tame the heat)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons greek yogurt
2 tablespoons mayonaise
Sriracha to taste, we like it with about 1 1/2 tablespoons
1 lb ground pork (or turkey)
1 teaspoon dried basil
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 green onions, finely chopped (optional, see notes below)
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon chili garlic sauce (or one gentle squeeze of Sriracha)
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten
1-2 teaspoons sesame or vegetable or coconut oil, for browning
Lots of cilantro and sliced green onion for garnish
8 slices country white or wheat bread
A few notes on the meatballs:
These meatballs are very soft and do not contain a ton of bonding ingredients, relying on one lightly beaten egg and the stickiness of the raw meat to hold them together. This matters for two main reasons: (1) they are easiest to roll with wet hands, and (2) they are more fragile when cooking in the pan, so let them brown completely on each side before turning.
The combination of garlic, green onion, fish sauce, and chili garlic sauce (not to mention fried in sesame oil) make these meatballs super funky in the absolute best kind of way. That said, if you don’t have an extra green onion laying around then just tack on an extra clove of garlic (they’re in the same food family anyway) or leave it out entirely. I had run out of green onions one of the (many) times I made these and I didn’t miss the green onion for a second.
I prefer my meatballs golfball sized and each batch yielded between 16-18.
Pickles the veggies. Pile up the grated carrot, cucumber matchsticks, and jalapeños into a bowl or 2 cup measuring cup. In a different small bowl, whisk together the sugar, vinegar, salt and sesame oil. Pour over the vegetables. Leave the vegetables out on the counter to pickle while you prepare the remaining components. If you’re pickling the vegetables in advance (they only get better with time) cover and store them in the refrigerator, but take them out half an hour before serving unless you like cold toppings on hot sandwiches (we don’t).
Sriracha dressing. In a small bowl, whisk together all the ingredients for the dressing. Cover and refrigerate.
Prepare the meatballs. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients except for the sesame oil for frying and mix lightly with a fork. Heat the sesame oil in a skillet (original calls for nonstick, but I had success with a well-seasoned cast iron) over medium heat until hot and rippling. Add the meatballs in a single layer and brown on all sides. See note above about browning.
Transfer the browned meatballs to a paper towel-lined plate to drain and repeat with remaining meatballs. The pork will render a fair amount of fat into the pan, so adding additional oil shouldn’t be necessary if using pork (but might if using turkey). Once all of the meatballs have been browned on all sides and are draining, drain off the oil from the skillet and place the meatballs back into the skillet in a single layer. Transfer the meatballs to the oven and bake the for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let sit for a few minutes to cool enough for you to handle them without taking off your fingerprints.
Assemble sandwiches. Toast the slices of bread in a standard toaster or convection oven. Spread the Sriracha dressing on both slices. Cut the meatballs in half and place them cut-side down onto the bottom slice of bread. Using either a spoon or your hands, scoop up some of the pickled vegetables, making sure to shake off any excess liquid. Layer the pickled vegetables on top of the meatballs and top everything with cilantro. Place the top slice of bread and press down to meld all of the components together. Make sure to smize as you meet the envious stares of your coworkers. :)