My Mom’s One And Only Tomato Beef Chow Mein

My favorite tomato beef chow mein. Recipe follows at the end.

Fresh tomatoes. Seared slices of flank steak. Pan-crisped Chinese egg noodles.

Three simple ingredients that together have the most profound of meanings for me.

They make up my favorite tomato beef chow mein dish that my late-mother used to make for family lunches and dinners. Of all the home-style Cantonese dishes she cooked, it’s the one that most reminds me of her, it’s the one that most epitomizes her.  It’s a strong dish that can stand on its own, yet it’s unfussy, it’s comforting, and it’s full of sweet soulfulness.

I still can picture my Mom in the kitchen of our family house in San Francisco, draining the pot of noodles, tossing them with soy sauce and toasted sesame oil, then splitting them between two frying pans to crisp. With my fingers, I would pick a few hot, crunchy strands out of the pan. As I happily chomped, she would shoo me away with a glint in her eyes, knowing full well I just couldn’t resist.

When the noodles were ready, my petite Mom would toss the hefty mound in a big wok with the flank steak, stewed tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, celery, onions, green pepper, and coins of ginger. When it was ready, my father, two brothers, and I would eagerly line up at the stove to heap some onto our plates.

The taste is at once sweet, savory, and lively, with crisp vegetables and noodles, and unctuous, jammy tomatoes. We always had seconds. We never, ever tired of eating it.

My dear Mom (photo courtesy of Jennifer Jung)When my Mom suffered a stroke four years ago, and went through rehabilitation to relearn how to speak and to use her right hand again, my husband used to try to keep her fighting spirit up by telling her, “You have to get better so you can cook me your tomato beef chow mein. You know, I’ve never had it yet.”

A few years later when her health started to decline severely, my husband would continue to say that to her, even if we all knew in our hearts she probably would never make that dish or any other again. Even so, there were times when he said it that I saw that familiar twinkle in her eyes again.

My husband never got to try my Mom’s true version, made lovingly with her own hands. Sadly, she passed away last year.

As what would have been my Mom’s 88th birthday approaches this week, I vowed to make tomato beef chow mein in honor of her. Fortunately, I had the foresight to have her write down the recipe a decade ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the prescience to have her jot down more of them.

I cut the celery on the diagonal, just as I had watched her do so many times. I sliced the flank steak against the grain, just as she always had. Maybe it was the fact that I was mimicking her movements, but I felt as if she was there with me, instructing me, and keeping a watchful eye to make sure I did it as it should be done.

As I tossed the noodles, tomatoes and beef in the fiery wok, it all looked so familiar and felt so right. I scooped a tangle of noodles onto a plate for my husband, who had waited years to taste this dish that he had heard so much about.

He put a forkful into his mouth, and chewed as he let out a most contented “Mmmmm.”

“This is GOOD!” he finally said, reaching for another forkful.

I can’t say if my Mom would have thought it tasted exactly like what she used to make. But I’m pretty proud of this rendition. I even threw in a few heirloom tomatoes, something my Mom never would have considered. Still, I think she would have approved.

This was my first time making my Mom’s tomato beef chow mein. I know it won’t be my last. From now on, it’ll once again be a staple in my life. Because, Mom, this one’s by you, and is you. Now. Always. With every blissful bite.

My Mom’s Tomato Beef Chow Mein

(serves 4)

For meat:

½ pound flank steak, sliced thinly, against the grain

1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce

¼ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cornstarch

For noodles:

1 pound fresh Chinese egg noodles

2 tablespoons Asian sesame oil

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

For sauce:

1 onion, sliced thinly

2 ribs celery, sliced diagonally

½ green bell pepper, sliced

4 large tomatoes, cut in large chunks

1 can (14.5 ounces) stewed tomatoes

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce

1 teaspoon vinegar or lemon juice

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon ground ginger or a few slices of fresh ginger

2 tablespoons cornstarch, mixed with ½ cup cold water until dissolved

To marinate beef: Mix beef slices with 1 teaspoon sesame oil, 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce, 1 teaspoon cornstarch, and ¼ teaspoon baking soda. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

To make noodles: Cook noodles in a pot of boiling water for about 1 minute. Drain noodles, rinse under cold running water, drain again. Put noodles in a bowl, and stir in 2 tablespoons sesame oil, and 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce.

Heat a small amount of oil in two 12-inch non-stick frying pans. Divide noodles evenly between the two pans. Cook on medium meat until noodles are crispy and light-brown in color. Stir frequently to prevent burning. Set noodles aside and keep warm.

Add a little bit of oil to a large wok or non-stick frying pan, and brown the beef over high heat. Transfer beef to a bowl, and set aside.

Add a little more oil to the pan. On medium-high heat, sauté onion, celery, and bell pepper for a few minutes. Then add fresh tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, dark soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and ginger. Bring to a boil. Slowly stir in cornstarch mixture. Cook until sauce thickens. Add beef, then stir in the noodles. Serve immediately.

— Recipe by my late-Mom, May Jung

Don’t Miss: My Video Demo of Making Tomato Beef Chow Mein at Macy’s Union Square

More: My Mom’s Prawns with Pork and Black Bean Sauce

More: My Version of My Mom’s Sticky Rice

More: Recreating My Mom’s Steamed Pork Cake

More: My Mom’s World’s Easiest Noodle Soup

And: Recreating My Mom’s Rice Porridge

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  • When I lived in San Francisco in the 70’s and 80’s, I used to go to a restaurant on 18th St called the South China Cafe. I always got the Tomato Beef Chow Mein because it was soooo good! As soon as I walked in, the lady behind the counter would always laugh and say “You want Chinese spaghetti, right?” I made your Mom’s recipe the other night and it is the first recipe I’ve found that is as good as (if not better than) the chow mein I remember. Thank you so much for sharing your Mom’s recipe. I’ll be making it often!

  • Jim: You just made my day with that comment. No doubt that if my Mom were still alive today, she’d have a big smile on her face after hearing how much you enjoyed her humble dish.

  • E.M.Baxter (Geno)

    My favorite Chinese dish is tomato beef on pan fried noodles, it is my comfort food. I was born and raised in San Francisco, in the 60s & 70s. While I no longer live in the CITY I miss all of the incarnations of this wonderful dish. Your story moved my in ways I can’t describe. The other day my wife of eight months, who loves pasta, made a quick meal of thin spaghetti and red sauce. The dish she served herself reminded me of one of those incarnations and how long it has been since I have tasted the dish you describe. I can’t wait to try your recipe.

  • what if your local grocer doesn’t have flank steak? What is the next best meat that is more common?

  • Michelle: You could probably use most any steak meat trimmed off the bone. Just take care not to overcook the meat then.

  • For years I would go to Firebaugh California for Tomato Beef Chow mein at Yip’s Resturant.
    The Lady that owned it was May. Coincidence?
    Hope this is her recipe. My mouth would start to water when I crossed the bridge into town.

  • I was looking for a recipe for tomato-beef chow mein, a favorite of mine when I was growing up, when I ran across your article and recipe. Your mother’s recipe sounds like just thing I was looking for.

    Your story is exquisite, and I greatly appreciate your sharing it with us. Thank you

  • Todd: You are too kind. I hope it truly is just what you were looking for. Enjoy one of my favorite dishes of all time. 😉

  • I too lived in SF in the 70’s and 80’s or would make a special trip to my favorite Wing Lees (First on Pacific and then on Polk) even when I moved to the burbs – where I only ordered Tomato Beef Chow Fun. Have yet to find anywhere that makes it quite as good, but will try this one with the Chow Fun noodles. Thanks for sharing.

  • Rebecca: OMG, what memories. My family used to go to Wing Lee’s when I was a kid, too. I think we used to get the won tons a lot. I hope you try my Mom’s version of tomato beef chow mein. It truly is amazing — and I would say that even if I wasn’t related to her. When you make it, you’ll have to let me know how you think it compares to Wing Lee’s. 😉

  • Did your mom ever live in Las Vegas? there was a lady named May that made the best Beef Tomato Chow Mein here back in the 80’s!

  • Patty: My Mom never lived in Vegas. She visited once or twice. But that was about it. How funny about the other May who made stellar tomato beef chow mein, too! 😉

  • Makes me go back to the 60’s when I first went to S.F. and learned how good Cantonese food was. Tomato beef being my favorite. Ho fun or chow fun was another great favorite as was going to Edsel’s soup kitchen late at nite in China town. I lived in the avenues for about 10 years. 8Th avenue. Nam Yuen was a nice place to eat in China town.

  • Roger: Nam Yuen! Now that’s an oldie but goodie. I remember going there as a kid with my family. Those were the days!

  • You mom will be very proud of having a daughter like you! About the chow mein, will it have any problem if i replace 1 tablespoon sugar by 1/2 tablespoon honey to make the sauce for this dish?

  • Hi Lita: Substituting a little honey instead of sugar would be totally fine. It’s such a small amount that it shouldn’t really make a difference taste-wise. You can even use less honey/sugar in the recipe, if you like. It’s really “to taste.”

  • My uncle (he’s half Cantonese) own a Chinese restaurant, and one of my favorites is his beef tomato chow mein. I don’t get to visit as often and I’ve often wondered how to make it. I do have a question though. If I don’t find canned stewed tomatoes in the local supermarket, what substitute do I use? We have a lot of tomato paste and tomato sauce in cans, though.

    Your mom’s recipe looks so right on the spot. My respect.


  • Just read through the comments above and saw the reference to Wing Lee. I remember seeing the daughter Mary, standing on a small stool so she could be above the wok to chow properly.

    Her brother John changed his career to law enforcement.

    The original Wong Lee I knew was located on the south east corner of Jackson and Leavenworth. My two fav dishes to order was tomato beef jeen mein, and chicken curry over rice.

    All in all, too many great memories of great Cantonese Food from San Francisco’s Chinatown and its’ surrounding neighborhoods.

    Love your writing. Keep it up.

  • Ron: That place was a classic. I was only a tot when I remember my parents going there regularly. Thank YOU for sparking me think back to those days fondly.

  • The first time I was served beef tomato chow mein left me awestruck. It was like the best thing I ever tasted. I was repairing the fancy gas station on the corner of Grant & Broadway. The owner, Tom, brought us lunch. (Tom was the best). A large chow mein and a plum bun for desert. This was the mid 80’s. I have never saw plum buns in any restaurant since, always pork buns.
    Now if I could just find some sweet & sour with pineapple, Mandarin orange & lychee nut. Everytime I ask for it they tell me to go to S.F
    Thank you for sharing your Mothers memory.
    Peace and Love

  • Robert: What a wonderful memory of your first taste of tomato beef chow mein. Wow, I have never heard of plum buns. You have me so intrigued now. I wonder if only one place made them, and when they went out of business, the plum buns were no more? I will have to ask my relatives to see if any of them have ever had the pleasure of eating them.

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