Deconstructing the Meatball Sandwich at Thien An Sandwiches

Thien An Sandwiches is one of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants inside the loop, but I find myself not eating there as often as I'd like due to its hours. I don't work close enough to visit for lunch, and by the time I get home it's closed. So I found myself with a day off and a leisurely afternoon for lunch, Thien An was the first place I thought to go.

At 12:30, it was the lunch rush, and a small line formed outside the door. I was asked if I would mind sharing a table with another single diner, and stomach growling, I agreed. My go-to dishes at Thien An are the Pho (a 2008 Best of Houston winner), the Banh Xeo (a crispy Vietnamese crepe stuffed with pork and shrimp) and, of course, the Banh Mi. Normally I order to-go, so I've never really looked at the menu, but I noticed something else that day -- the Banh Mi Xiu Mai Dia, literally translated as Meatball Sandwich Plate ($3.50).

The dish is basically a deconstructed version of the meatball sandwich. All the usual ingredients are served in a bowl -- three large meatballs swimming in the broth in which they're steamed are topped off with the pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber slices and springs of cilantro. A small bowl of soy sauce with fresh jalapenos accompanies it for seasoning and dipping. And of course, it comes with toasted French bread.

My first order of business was to break off a piece of the warm crusty bread and dip it into the clear broth. It wasn't what I expected. Not at all greasy, it was full of pork flavor, and there was a hint of sweetness from the onions as well as a tang from the pickled vegetables. To create the perfect bite, I spread the soft meatball onto a piece of bread, topped it with some of the vegetables and dipped it into the broth. It was all the flavors of the Banh Mi, but the addition of the broth took it up another notch. This is definitely a dish I will add to my list of regulars at Thien An.

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