My Mom’s One And Only Tomato Beef Chow Mein
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.
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
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
1 pound fresh Chinese egg noodles
2 tablespoons Asian sesame oil
2 tablespoons dark soy 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
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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.
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.
The letter from Patty on August 26, 2016 made my heart skip a beat. I too was a big fan of May and her mom. I first had the pleasure of Beef Tomato Chow Mein in the spring of 1973. May and her mom ran the lunch counter at the 15th Street Drug in Las Vegas. There was always a line of people waiting for one of those counter stools. One day we heard that the drug store was closing. We ate there everyday until they were closed for good. I thought we had lost them. Then, one day I go into Decatur Drug at Alta and Decatur. I walked in the door, got a wif of a wonderful favorite memory – it was BTCM! I walked back to the counter and there they were – May and her mom. Then as quickly as I found them, they were gone. The last real BTCM was years ago – I’ve played with flavors until I created a pretty good copy. But it will never beat the drug store counter specialty. I can’t wait to try your recipe. Thanks for sharing.
Jane: What a treasured memory of tomato beef chow mein! I can just picture you tickled pink to find that May and her Mom were making it again — at least for a little while. I hope you enjoy my Mom’s recipe. You will have to let me know if it comes close to your favorite rendition.
I feel so weirded out… because when I moved out of SF Bay Area and to a small town in Texas, I was like, “Huh, guess they don’t have Tomato beef chow mein here.”, but then I moved to Montreal Canada which has an actual Chinatown, and realized, there is not a single restaurant out of the hundreds of Chinese-owned Chinese restaurants here that serves it either! I thought, “wtf?”, but talked with a group of Asian diaspora and realized, even those from South California hadn’t heard of it… I was like shocked. Then I looked it up and it seems like from what others say, it’s a particularly San Francisco dish. o_o I never knew it until today. I just always grew up with it and never thought it was something special. But all my relatives in the SF Bay Area order it as their #1 priority in Chinese restaurants, so I sort of thought of it the way many people see Spaghetti or Pizza lol, thinking it’d be normal everywhere. 🙁 But I am glad recipes online exist like on here. Thanks a lot.
Angela: That is so interesting that it’s a dish that only gained a foothold in the Bay Area. I wonder if early Cantonese immigrants somehow came up with it or something? In any event, if you make my Mom’s recipe, you’ll have to let me know how it compares to what you fondly remember. Happy cooking!
This recipe looks awesome! My mouth has been watering for Tomato Beef Chow Mein for over 30 years. I have oh so great memories of having it at Bok Sen, a restaurant in Oakland CA Chinatown that has sadly been gone for many years. I’ll be making this recipe this week. Thanks so much for posting!
Thank you so much for the recipe. I’m a San Francisco born expat who now lives in SE Asia, and believe it or not, we can’t get any decent chow mein here. I have to go to Hong Kong to get decent chow mein, Hong Kong style of course. I used to eat tomato beef chow mein often in the Bay Area, and can’t wait to try your recipe. Thank you again!
Jerry: No decent chow mein there? That is sad, indeed. It has been such a wonderful surprise to find out there are so many tomato beef chow mein fans out there — and all over the world, too. I hope you try the recipe and enjoy it. I know my Mom would have been thrilled to know her simple family dish was being made as far away as Southeast Asia! 😉
Great story about your mum :-). Looking forward to trying your / her recipe. As a kid growing up in Vancouver there were many trips to Chinatown. It was always a magical place for me – the sounds, smells, the curio shops… I loved everything about it. Our go-to restaurant was the Ho Inn – a classic Cantonese diner from the 50s. It even had the little jukeboxes at each booth. It was fabulous. Sadly the restaurant burned down about 25 yrs ago – so many people were shocked and saddened at the loss of a Vancouver institution. Anyway, my mom’s fave dish was tomato beef chow mein. She always ordered it and we all loved it. I have not tasted it in decades so I am really excited to try this great sounding recipe!
Chris: I remember old-school restaurants like that with the little jukeboxes. And ones with the high-backed wood booths that had doorbell-like ringers to summon a waiter. I hope my Mom’s tomato beef chow mein will give you a taste of nostalgia. Enjoy! 😉
I read 9and will use) your recipe and noticed your 8/2015 comment string about “Wing Lee Restaurant” in SF. I know John and texted him this link. He laughed and thanked me. Then he replied, “Guess what I’m making tonight?” Lol!
When I was in high school, I remember seeing him working the cash register & periodically ordered TBCM or beef chow-fun from his parents’ Chinese restaurant on Polk St. He’s a solid OG dude and still makes great “old-time San Francisco Chinatown” comfort foods (for himself!). hahaha!
Hi Norm: That is so cool that you know and still keep in touch with your old friend John from Wing Lee restaurant. That just shows the power of good food — building connections that last and last. I hope you enjoy my mom’s recipe. Happy cooking, and happy holidays! 😉
I spent summers in SF at my aunties up on Pacific Ave. Loved Belfast ale which was always served with meals at Far East, Four Seas, etc. My mother and auntie worked for a family friend that has a garment factory across the street from the police station, which is not the TransAmerica Tower. Sam Wo was a favorite for their jook and yu jaw quay, it was never the same after the old man died but Edsel was a fixture. Tomato beef chow mein has always been a favorite of mine as well as gnow knok fan! Later on in life I ended up in Hawaii and found that all the SF dishes are there as well as newer interpretations that are just broke da mout! I have found that food has been enhanced by the influences of newer groups i.e. the Hunan and spicer provinces along with the meld of Viet Namese and their spices that include Thai heat. My mother too was a great cook and probably the same age as your mother, she was born in 1920 in Toi San. I have not only replicated her dishes but have been able to improve them with the mix of spices and chilis that straight Cantonese would never use.
Hi Paul: Such wonderful memories! I remember the familiar Belfast bottle at every banquet meal, too. As a kid, it was such a treat to sip. I love how you’ve taken your mom’s recipes and made them your own. No doubt, she would be tickled to see what you’ve created. Happy New Year! And happy cooking!
Carolyn, you’re awakening my pre-pandemic senses of Old Chinatown. I’m now one of those ‘OG’s’ that you can ask about the heyday of Cantonese Cuisine from the fifties on up! We lived on Green Street next to Fugazi Hall so my first memory of TBCM was from the revered Chinese Kitchen Restaurant located on Pacific and Mason. I believe it was one of the first take out restaurants that focused primarily on take out and they were known for their TBCM and Beef Chow Fun. We had huge family parties in those times and the delis didn’t exist then so I believe this was one of the ways the legends of Cantonese Cuisine spread among San Francisco’s earliest foodies. Me being the youngest of four boys with our widowed mother was tasked with picking up the dinners as Mother had to work two full time jobs to make ends meet. That task led me to many of the old time restaurants that kept our hearts in (Chinatown) San Francisco. Let’s see if some of these names inspire more memories to be elucidated. Sun Wah Kue?
Kay Kay? Uncles Coffee Shop? Jackson Cafe?
Sai Yun? Wuey Loy Guey? Pork Chop House? Golden Phoenix? Young’s Cafe? Tong Kee, of course Wing Lee but here’s the kicker for my generation… Chucks Fountain on the corner of Powell and Clay Streets for the never to be copied Ngaho Nam Fahn; the famous Beef Stew over Rice. Much respect to Foodgal and thank you so much for inspiring me. I just might write that book I was always putting off for years…
Hi Wilson: Now, you are bringing me back down memory lane. I was just a kid, but I definitely remember the names of Wing Lee, San Wah Kue, Tong Kee, and most of all, Golden Phoenix, where we had many a family dinner and banquet celebration. I think you should write that book of yours. I would definitely read it! 😉