Food is memory, and many of my memories are linked to food. This recipe has grown and evolved over three generations in my family. My grandfather used to own a restaurant in Los Angeles Chinatown called Dragon’s Den. It was only the seventh family-style Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles. Back in 1936, when Dragon’s Den opened, this dish—minus the curry and the noodles—cost just twenty-five cents. The restaurant had closed by the time I was born, but I can remember my grandfather making a version of the Dragon’s Den tomato beef at home.
My father first had curried tomato beef chow chow mein (with fried noodles) in a restaurant in San Francisco. He later found it in a café on San Pedro Street, close to Ninth Street, and opposite the wholesale produce market in Los Angeles. He’s been perfecting his version ever since. You can use Chinese egg or rice noodles for this dish, but my dad uses angel hair pasta. If I’m not in the mood for noodles, then I just serve the curried tomato beef with rice. My other addition to the recipe is the marinade. It tenderizes the beef and adds a little extra flavor. What I love about this dish is the taste of the tomatoes and vinegar. It’s a combination that takes me right back to my childhood. Best of all, this dish is fast, colorful, and combines all the food groups.
Tomato beef is a uniquely Chinese-American dish—symbolic in many ways of the “melting pot.” “Mein” means noodles in Cantonese, but beef and tomatoes are not typical Chinese ingredients. But in the past, if you were Chinese and lucky enough to own your own restaurant, you put together ingredients you thought would please your American customers. That’s how American tomatoes and beef came to be thrown together with Chinese noodles. For a time tomato beef lo mein and curried tomato beef lo mein could be found on every menu in Chinese-American restaurants and cafés, such as the Golden Dragon Café and Pearl’s Coffee Shop in Shanghai Girls. Now you can’t even find tomato beef in Chinese restaurants! No one asks for it, orders it, or remembers it. So this truly is a taste of the past, specifically 1950’s Chinese America. There is no right or wrong way to make this dish. It’s all about your personal taste and whether you like more vinegar or sugar.
1 lb. flank steak — cut into ¼” strips against the grain
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon dry sherry
1 teaspoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2-3 Tbsp. canola oil
1 medium to large onion – cut into 1” squares
1 green bell pepper — chopped into 1” squares
4 roma tomatoes – quartered
1 Tbsp. Madras curry powder
4-6 Tbsp. white vinegar
1-3 teaspoons white sugar
Cilantro – loosely chopped
1 lb pasta
Mix ingredients for marinade (soy sauce, sherry, sesame oil, salt, pepper, and cornstarch) and add sliced beef. Let marinate for 20 minutes.
Put oil in a wok (or frying pan) over high heat. When oil is hot and smoking, add the beef and stir fry until browned but not fully cooked. Add the onion and bell pepper. After they’ve cooked for a while (but are still crisp), add the curry powder, vinegar, and sugar. Add tomatoes and cook until just heated through. (You don’t want the vegetables to lose their shape. They should remain whole and crisp.) Taste for flavor. The sauce should be strong, because it will be toned down by the noodles (or rice).
Meanwhile, in a separate pot, heat water and cook the noodles of your choice according to package instructions. When done, drain the noodles and put them on a platter. Pour the curried tomato on top of noodles, sprinkle with chopped cilantro, and serve.
• For the more health conscious, you can substitute chicken for the beef. My dad fries boneless, skinless chicken thighs until they’re done enough to cut them up easily. Then he adds them back to the wok after the onion and bell pepper to cook a bit more.
• Some people like to add the noodles to the wok and toss them with the other ingredients. Transfer to a platter and sprinkle with cilantro.