Highlights and Crispy Beef (Recipe)
You may not know this, but my heart actually belongs to two Joes—one is my husband, the other is my hair stylist. Except he’s not just the guy who does my hair—he’s a good friend, a friend I met many moons before the other Joe came into the picture. My Two Joes.
I met Hair Joe when he was a waiter at Grace’s Fortune, the Best Chinese Restaurant Ever. It was located in a strip mall in Bowie, where I grew up. That location has since closed, but Grace’s and Grace’s Mandarin carry on both the name and delectable dishes.
During high school, my friends and I would go to Grace’s to hang out. Don’t laugh; Bowie didn’t have many socializing options for teenagers back then, unless you wanted to smoke weed or drink behind dumpsters. And I was a bona fide Good Girl, so I opted for the Chinese place.
Joe is originally from Hong Kong. When the bar opened at Grace’s, he became the bartender. He started out serving us Shirley Temples, but once we were of age, we were happy to let him test out new cocktail recipes on us.
Fast-forward 20 years or so (holy moly I just realized it’s been 20 years), and now I travel to Baltimore to see Joe, where he works as a stylist at Studio 921 Salon and Spa. I go there every month or so to pamper myself and catch up with my old friend. We share a love of food, so on one occasion, as I was having my highlights retouched (you didn’t really think I’m a natural blonde, did you?), I started asking him how to make some of my favorite dishes from our time together at Grace’s.
Crispy Beef is exactly like it sounds; small strips of marinated steak lightly dredged in egg and cornstarch then deep-fried until they’re golden and crisp, yet chewy. Tossed in a simple sweet-and-spicy sauce and served over rice, this was one of my favorite dishes to order at Grace’s—and I haven’t found a version anywhere else that even holds a candle to it.
I absolutely loved recreating this dish. While I was julienning the carrots and celery, it brought back memories of all those nights my friends and I would sit at the bar and talk to Joe, often until long after the restaurant was officially closed. We’d eat, talk, drink, and laugh together well into the night.
As I watched the strips of beef crisp up in the bubbling oil, I remembered the night of my senior prom, when my friends and I got all dressed up and piled into my mom’s minivan, stopping at Grace’s for dinner before the big event. When we arrived, the host took us to a table where a big bouquet of flowers decorated the center. In the bouquet was a note from my dad: Dinner’s on me.
Memories in a thin blade of carrot. Love in a powdery heap of cornstarch. Laughter in a sprinkling of crushed red pepper.
Life on a plate.
Crispy Beef (Inspired by Grace’s Fortune)
1 lb steak (I used tri-tip), cut into matchsticks ~1/4 inch wide and 1 1/2 inches long
3 Tbsp + 6 Tbsp soy sauce or liquid aminos (separated)
3 Tbsp + 3 Tbsp toasted sesame oil (separated)
6 baby carrots
3 stalks celery
Canola oil (the amount you need will depend on the width of your pot; you need enough for the oil to be about two inches deep)
2 1/4 c + 1 tsp cornstarch, plus more if needed
3 eggs, beaten
6 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (less if you want to reduce the heat)
6 Tbsp beef stock
3 cups cooked rice, for serving
Chopped scallions, for serving
Marinate the beef: Combine 3 Tbsp soy sauce and 3 Tbsp sesame oil in a medium bowl. Add the beef strips, and toss to coat them with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate for about twenty minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables: Julienne the carrots and celery into matchsticks ~1/8 inch wide by 1 1/2 inches long. Set aside.
Prepare the cooking oil: Pour the canola oil into a relatively deep pot (leave at least three inches of space at the top of your pot to prevent the oil from boiling over when you add the ingredients). Attach an oil thermometer to the side and heat the oil to 375º.
While the oil is heating, prepare the dredging materials: Put the beaten eggs in one bowl and the cornstarch in another bowl next to it.
Fry the beef: Take a small handful of the beef from the marinade and let most of the liquid drip off before adding it to the egg. Toss to coat. Transfer a few of the strips to the cornstarch and use a fork to coat the pieces well. Use the fork to transfer the pieces to a mesh sieve and shake vigorously to remove the excess cornstarch – this part is very important in order to have an optimal meat-to-coating ratio. Carefully add the pieces to the oil.
Fry the beef in small batches for 5 – 8 minutes; test a strip for doneness after about five minutes; it should be crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. Remove the cooked strips with a slotted spoon and set on a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
After all the beef is cooked and removed, VERY carefully add the carrots and celery to the oil. You will need to do this in small batches as well, as the moisture from the vegetables will cause the oil to bubble up a lot at first. Fry the vegetables for just ten seconds or so, then remove and let drain on the plate with the beef.
Prepare the sauce: In a large saucepan or wok, combine 6 Tbsp soy sauce, 3 Tbsp sesame oil, the sugar, crushed red pepper flakes, and beef stock. Whisk over medium-high heat to dissolve the sugar and caramelize it. When the mixture is simmering, add 1 tsp cornstarch and whisk vigorously to dissolve. When the sauce has thickened a bit (about a minute), turn off the heat and add the beef and vegetables back in and toss to coat.
Serve over rice and garnish with chopped scallions.