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Restaurant Openings and Closings

Reyna Duong Reflects on How Sandwich Hag Changed Her Life and Dallas’ Food Scene

The James Beard Award-nominated chef talks about how Dallas is changing, how restaurants can build healthy communities, immigrant identity—and, of course, what comes next.
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A table of food at Sandwich Hag.

On Saturday, May 18, Sandwich Hag served its final bánh mì. In its almost seven-year run at its Cedars location, Sandwich Hag built a sterling reputation for its food, with each bánh mì’s fillings made from scratch. But it was also famous for non-edible reasons: its “no assholes” policy to protect employees and customers from that variety of person, its refusal to make substitutions or alterations, and chef-owner Reyna Duong’s public advocacy on a variety of issues. Duong started the restaurant, in part, to employ her brother Sang, who has Down syndrome. She held night markets on World Down Syndrome Day, mentored younger Asian American chefs, encouraged other restaurateurs to protect their own well-being, and spoke out on social media about local and global political causes.

In other words, Sandwich Hag was a whirlwind. The restaurant closed on May 18 to give its creators a break. After taking some recovery time, Duong and her crew plan to revive their morning coffee shop, chimlanh, in the space—and open up the kitchen to a new chef who will serve savory food to pair with the drinks. They’re not ready to announce who that chef will be just yet, or when chimlanh will return. (The name is not capitalized.)

But Duong was ready to talk about Sandwich Hag’s seven-year legacy, her advocacy work, how Dallas is changing, the challenges of being an immigrant restaurateur, and much, much more. We spoke for almost two hours the week after the restaurant closed, catching up on everything from the bad advice she got when Sandwich Hag opened to the thing she’ll remember even more fondly than her 2023 nomination for a James Beard Award.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How are you feeling?

I feel so happy. I’m excited. The last week was really emotional, especially to see the support—talking about it is emotional. Every day was crazy, and then Friday was crazier, and Saturday was craziest. Friday and Saturday mornings were also really busy with chimlanh. I knew folks were gonna come hang out, get their cà phê, wait around, and then start the queue. Around 10:30 when I looked out, the line was already at the end of the parking lot. It felt like a grand opening. I had butterflies!

It felt like a big heartfelt party. Everybody gave each other the grace to say their goodbyes and good luck and hugs and pictures. It was just so beautiful to see, and in the moment, I was like, OK, I built this. I cultivated this community of grace and love. I feel emotional thinking about it. But I feel happy.

I’ve been ready to move on, honestly. To finish, I did the Booker T. Washington senior graduation dinner last night. It’s the third year in a row. It’s such a special event, the school’s so special to me. We finished that and that’s when it felt like we were done.

This is maybe deep for the start of a conversation, but since you mentioned it, I feel like you do such a good job of connecting with those feelings of love and support. That can be hard for a lot of people, who might just think, “There are so many people here. I’m so tired.” I wonder if you work on or practice that, to open yourself to feeling—

The vulnerability? I think it’s how I’m wired. It does take practice for most people. Once you put yourself out there, you’re also opening yourself up to rejection. It’s hard to put yourself out there, whether you’re scared, you’re happy, you’re angry, you’re confused.

I’ve learned that most people may feel the same way, they’re just afraid to show it or share it. Through my posts over the years, almost every single time, if not every time, actually, the response has been overwhelmingly, “Thank you for sharing that.” If my community of customers are taking the time to tell me this, then it’s only right for me to take the time to share with them how their response and support has made me feel.

But sometimes, you know, when you open yourself out—I’m so drained, too. It’s like a social battery. I’m very grateful for how powerful our community is. And with that, it’s only right for me to have the energy to respond back.

At the beginning I was told that we wouldn’t last three months with our “no modifications” policy. I was told that I was arrogant because I didn’t want to change our food.

Reyna Duong

We’ve talked in the past about building your community and what you would tell other restaurateurs about building the community you want to serve.

I took some notes on what I’ve learned. First and foremost: restaurant ownership, restaurant workers, service industry workers are some of the hardest-working people in our country. Farmers are the hardest working people, the most underpaid and the least respected, the cornerstone of how we exist in this country, literally.

Super important one here. Customers are usually wrong. They’re rarely ever right. How long a dish should take to go out to their table. How it should be made. How it should be tasted. How they should be treated—the societal expectation of, if we’re wearing a name tag or we’re behind the counter, then immediately we’re your servant, we’re not your equal.

I’ve been lucky enough to cultivate a community of customers that also share the same values and beliefs, but it’s only through transparency, [sharing] situations where we’re standing up for my team, where the education and awareness has grown over the years.

I’ve learned to not lose sight of why we go into business. I wanted to open a restaurant for two reasons. To honor my mom and her way of cooking everything from scratch, and to give Sang, my brother that has Down syndrome, a place to call his own and empower him. Sometimes we tend to lose our way with fear of losing customers. It’s a constant reminder to not lose sight of why I left corporate America to do things on my terms and in my way.

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Reyna Duong, chef-owner of Sandwich Hag and owner of coffee shop chimlanh. Elizabeth Lavin

A big recent learning is that with Vietnamese Americans versus people in Vietnam—Vietnamese people in Vietnam have been able to be more progressive and more creative in their art, food, music, in comparison to Vietnamese Americans. When our families had to flee in the ’70s because of the fall of Saigon, our elders were trying to hold on to the only thing they had, which was tradition. Not wanting to lose their identity, not wanting the future generations to lose their identity. With that, they’re holding on really tight. That makes complete sense. And then, say, when I come in and say, “I’m doing it this way.” “Well, that’s not Vietnamese food.” But if you go to Vietnam—I’ll give an example. I make spring rolls and I don’t use vermicelli. I was told, “Well, that’s not really a spring roll.” While I’m in Vietnam, there’s a lot of restaurants that don’t use vermicelli in their spring rolls! I remember doing a post I was like, “This is for all them hoes that said I wasn’t Vietnamese enough!”

But the Vietnamese people in Vietnam didn’t have this fear of losing their identity so they were able to evolve in their creativity. It was really empowering to recognize that even though I left when I was one [year old] and grew up here in the U.S., there are still components of how I am wired or how I run my business, that align with my homeland.

That subject fascinates me because I see it in almost every immigrant culture here, including my own family. When you come to a new place, your identity is between two places, and traditions kind of freeze. “That’s not the way my grandmother made it.”

I lived it with my own family and my own parents. It wasn’t until I had my own restaurant where I’m like, “This is what I like. This is how I prefer to enjoy this.” It wasn’t until I visited Vietnam last year and got to connect with the locals, just pay attention to the ingredients. For instance, bánh mì, I was thinking I was going to go back out there and see jalapeños in the bánh mìs. There weren’t any, not even in the veggie plate. There was this one yellow pepper. I kept trying to get the name of it in English. It came out with almost everything. It makes sense! We did the best we could to [adapt] that dish with local ingredients, but when you fast-forward two generations beyond the family that brought bánh mì to the U.S., we’re not going to recognize that jalapeños are because we didn’t have the actual pepper that was in Vietnam.

Have you learned anything about Dallas?

Dallas is so powerful in so many ways. The media has a narrative that they choose to fall in line with—big and flashy, big hair, a lot of makeup. That had everything to do with what consumers thought they wanted. What came first, the chicken or the egg? “OK, we think they want this, so we have to keep writing stories about this.”

I don’t underestimate Dallas. What I’ve learned in the last decade—Dallas wants flavor. Dallas wants a business to have a soul. Yes, flashy is fun. But when big restaurant groups, out-of-town groups, think of Dallas, “let’s pop in! It’ll be great!,” they underestimate how Dallas has changed post-COVID. We’re very intentional about who we give our hard-earned money and support to. I’m not saying everyone. But we want a business with a soul. For the companies that say, “let’s just give them something flashy”—you go in after 30 days, it’s kind of quiet. Those companies have the luxury of closing that concept down if it doesn’t work and moving on to the next one.

Customers are usually wrong. They’re rarely ever right.

Reyna Duong

The respect level for independently owned restaurants has increased, especially after COVID. I include media on this as well. Taking the time to speak with owners that may not speak the same language, or removing the bias and pre-judgment of assuming, if they don’t look like a White person, that they don’t speak English. I’m reading more and more stories about a restaurant that most mainstream patrons would not have known about. Or taking the time to speak with the kitchen, the people that actually make the food, versus just what’s highlighted on social media.

With the media, when I read articles, the tone is different [now]. [Years ago,] I read an article about a Vietnamese restaurant and someone made fun of their name. We still have a long way to go, but there’s an increased level of respect for Asian restaurants that are independently owned. Geographically, I love to see that Vietnamese and Asian restaurants are opening and doing well in Dallas proper. That’s actually the reason why I opened in the Cedars.

We’re more open collectively to receiving things that are unfamiliar. Whether it’s a dish that somebody didn’t grow up eating or a way of doing business that’s not conventional. I’m a perfect example of that. At the beginning I was told that we wouldn’t last three months with our “no modifications” policy. I was told that I was arrogant because I didn’t want to change our food. There was a branding expert who told me that my no modifications policy is not going to work and I’m going to alienate people in Dallas. That told me how we were underestimated.

I was advised to mirror Yum! Brands. They had just opened a bánh mì concept, and they ended up changing their sign because it had the star. I was told to emulate them. I just laughed.

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Courtesy of Sandwich Hag

This is a really important point. A lot of restaurateurs still have a fear that Dallas is not ready for this, Dallas is not willing to pay for this. We’re not going to prove that wrong until we try to prove it wrong.

We can’t be it if we don’t see it. I’m a good example of that. I can take a hit. I can take criticism. I can take self-hating racism, if a Vietnamese American is not used to something that I’ve done, I can take that.

I’m not going to judge if another business doesn’t do it. It’s really hard. You’re putting yourself out there. The fear of losing customers if you increase the price. The fear of losing business if you speak out about a genocide. The fear of losing your entire restaurant if you implement a “no assholes” policy. What’s come of it is the support of people who mostly feel the same way. I don’t want an echo chamber. I’ve had discussions with folks that don’t feel the same way. We’ve agreed to disagree but share some values of being a good person and being respectful to one another. When someone is disrespectful, I give them the same energy. Having a restaurant was such a great way to bring people of different backgrounds together because it’s hard to sit at a table with delicious food and not have that commonality.

This is what I call the “Bourdain question.” Bourdain used to espouse this belief that you get people around a dinner table, and you can have these discussions. There was a belief that food plays a role in changing hearts and minds. During the Trump era, people became skeptical of that, because, just as an example, there are people who love Mexican food and hate Mexicans. But I feel like you have kept the hope going.

I’m not a religious person. I grew up Buddhist because of my family, but as I got older I became less and less religious. But I do believe in people. I may not make space for anyone that’s being disrespectful to me and my team, but I try to—and this took some growth in therapy and working on inner peace—I try to let people be who they are. If we can come together for at least an hour, and feel the same way about respecting one another, that’s a win.

Like anything, it can feel dark and discouraging. I’ve had moments where I’m like, “Why am I doing this? It’s already hard to have a restaurant. Why am I adding layers of hardship?” My rule has always been, if I lose sleep for at least three days by not addressing something, then that’s my sign that I need to release it and let it out into the world. Almost every single time, it’s been very therapeutic. Not everyone agrees, but enough have.

The weight is really heavy sometimes, where I feel like I’m not doing enough or saying enough. Then I remind myself, “No one’s staying up at night, losing sleep, saying, ‘Reye should do more.’ So sit your ass down and go to sleep!” But yeah, I just have to keep being hopeful and optimistic because I get to chat with my customers first-hand. I get to engage with them. And that’s a great, cool thing.

There’s so much more to Dallas than what the country sees. Steak and potatoes. The only way to show this is to do it.

Reyna Duong

You said it’s time to speak out when you’ve lost three nights of sleep thinking about whatever issue. Has the reverse ever happened? Have you lost sleep because you did speak out and you regretted it?

No. Solid no. I’ve never regretted speaking out about anything. I’ve lost sleep where I’m feeling sad or disappointed regarding certain reactions, or if a friend was offended. The reality of what true friendship is has made me lose sleep. I allow myself that, but I’ve never regretted it because I have to be consistent in who I am.

Another important part of Sandwich Hag’s culture and community is all the newer chefs and cooks who are coming up in the industry, who have been able to get a platform at your night markets or just through your mentorship.

When I have my night markets, I don’t take a fee, I don’t take a percentage of [vendors’] sales. I only ask that they pay it forward. I believe in community over competition. I opened up Sandwich Hag with the mission of sharing, not just sharing my food, but sharing my space.

It’s not very often you have a Vietnamese restaurant bring on a Vietnamese vendor to sell Vietnamese food in your parking lot. I believe that there’s not only enough customers to go around, there’s more than enough. There’s so much more to Dallas than what the country sees. Steak and potatoes. The only way to show this is to do it.

I luckily was able to cultivate a group of chefs and entrepreneurs where I said, “if you want to be a part of this, then you have to recognize that we’re not here to compete with one another. We’re here to grow with each other. And then you’re gonna go to their pop-up.”

A lot of communities have this same attitude. “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Lao chefs and Nepalese chefs have told me, the more people in Dallas who know what larb is, who know what momos are, the better for all of us in the end.

There’s always a way to make room so that we can all thrive. I’m kind of done with “Let’s just survive as an immigrant.” We can thrive. I don’t need to sit at your table. I’m building my own.

You’ve done so much in your years at Sandwich Hag—changing city law, the mentorship work, your non-profit work more recently with Hugs Cafe. When you look back on the Hag era, what is really going to stand out to you most?

The community that I cultivated. 100 percent. Hands down. This last week was really eye-opening. As morbid as this sounds, you know, sometimes we wonder what people would say about us at our funeral, but we’ll never get to experience that, right? I felt like I got to experience the concept of that, sans death. Every single customer, when they made it to the window, there were so many conversations of how I impacted their lives. They brought their kids.

So the impact I made in the Dallas community and beyond, but also the positive impact that the community has made for me, on the days where I felt like I couldn’t go anymore, or like this is too much. They kept me going. It’s not just transactional. Yes, ultimately you need to make money to stay open, but you can do that by being authentic in who you are. Transparent, honest, vulnerable.

The community, even more than James Beard. It’s fun to win awards, that’s a core memory, but you can ask me 100 years from now and I will say the same thing. I’ll never forget the people.

I wish everyone had a “no assholes” policy.

Reyna Duong

Anything else on your mind as you bring Sandwich Hag to a close?

I love seeing the mindset of independent business owners change in how they rest. I love when I see “we’re here until we’re sold out.” Historically, it’s OK to sell out of barbecue, and that’s expected. It’s OK [with barbecue] to stand in line for five hours, knowing that when you get to the front they may not have what you want. But not for a Vietnamese restaurant!

I love to see how that has changed. I love to see when someone says, “We’re tired today. We’re closing.” I love when I see, like, “Hey, you’re not going to talk to us like that.” I wish everyone had a “no assholes” policy.

OK. Now here’s the part everyone is curious about. What’s next? What will you be doing?

I want to continue with chimlanh, which is a Vietnamese cà phê shop. As much as Vietnamese coffee is prevalent in the entire world, with it being the second largest producer of coffee beans, Dallas proper didn’t have a Vietnamese coffee shop. There’s coffee offerings on menus at restaurants. [But] I definitely want to take a break. When I open back up is still TBD for chimlanh.

I’ve been working with Hugs Cafe as their culinary director and that’s been incredible. The ultimate goal is to have them go national. That’s going really, really well. Almost 100 percent of their employees are individuals with developmental disabilities. They’re amazing. They have a greenhouse. They have an academy. The consulting part of what I do is going to continue to grow, and it’s going to allow me to extend the ripple effect of my work in inclusive hiring. This will be an extension of everything I’ve been working at with Sandwich Hag.

As far as Sandwich Hag—I don’t want to even think about Sandwich Hag right now. I don’t plan on bringing Sandwich Hag back anytime soon. I’m planning to take a true sabbatical.

I still have the space. Our landlord doesn’t want us to go anywhere and I’m one of the lucky few who has a great relationship with my landlord. There is a food concept that’s going into my kitchen. I can’t share who or what or when because of the transition. That’s been a work in progress. There will be savory food there. But it’s not me. It’s not mine.

Is it somebody who’s been under your wing a little bit?

Yes. They have an existing concept, and they’re known and loved, and I love them. It’s their new concept. I can’t share yet. They’ll tell me when I can. They’ll be in our kitchen space sharing our energy, so I’ll be really excited about that.

Author

Brian Reinhart

Brian Reinhart

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Brian Reinhart became D Magazine's dining critic in 2022 after six years of writing about restaurants for the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News.
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