According to most estimates, there are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, and it seems as if you can find some version of beef and broccoli at almost all of them: velvety wok-fried meat in brown sauce, served in a forest of green. The dish has been part of the Chinese-American restaurant-food canon since at least the 1950s, a few decades after broccoli first rode to popular heights on the backs of the southern Italian immigrants who championed it on our shores. The dish is a standard at high-end restaurants and scruffy takeout shops alike, wherever there is a market for the sweet-salty-crisp flavors that Americans claim as a birthright.
But it would be a trial to find such a dish in China. “It’s diaspora food,” said Jonathan Wu, who until it closed recently was the chef at the elegant dim-sum bar Nom Wah Tu on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, “a genre unto itself.” Wu, an American of Chinese descent, ate the dish a lot when he was growing up outside Hartford, a home-cooked variety in which his mom reversed the proportions to provide a lot more broccoli and rice than beef. The broccoli was his favorite part, he said, lightly tossed in a wok that never got very hot on her electric-coil stove, and mixed with a sauce she never thickened beyond its base of pungent oyster cut through with soy. “She kept it simple,” he said. “Streamlined.”
That happens to be excellent advice for anyone who believes that home-cooked takeout-style beef and broccoli can trump the white-carton delivery variety. Inspired, I found myself cooking a version of Wu’s mother’s recipe for beef and broccoli not three hours after talking to him. On his advice, I trimmed chuck steak and cut it against the grain into strips, then stirred them into a marinade of rice wine, soy sauce and cornstarch. It clung to the beef, a kind of lustrous cloak. I cut broccoli into florets and planked the stems, just as his mother did, and made a sauce out of three others: Wu’s oyster and soy, and a little chile-garlic for zip.
The result was a heady miracle for a family that somehow always believes that the food coming on the bicycle, being handed through the Plexiglas shield, served from the steam table in the corner of the airport will be excellent, though it never really is. The two little Michelin inspectors who eat my food every night gave it two stars.
I thought: Two stars is great. [Pause] I was looking for three.
In search of improvement, I considered the lead of the antic, puckish chef Danny Bowien, of Mission Chinese in New York and San Francisco, who put a recipe for beef and broccoli into his 2015 cookbook. He built the dish on a foundation of braised beef cheeks and Chinese broccoli adorned in smoked oyster sauce. But the beef cheeks alone took the better part of a day. The smoked oyster sauce was like building a rocket. I looked at the other end of the spectrum as well, at chain-restaurant copycat recipes, considering the shiny slurries of cornstarch, soy and mirin that are meant to evoke the sugary sauce on the beef and broccolis served at PF Chang’s and Panda Express. I don’t love the food at those restaurants. I hated the slurries.
I called Dale Talde, chef at Talde in Brooklyn, where he cooks a kind of Asian-American food that he calls “proudly inauthentic.” His advice was immediate and emphatic: “Put a pat of butter in the sauce right at the end of the cooking. No one’s going to notice, but it’ll tone down the sodium and give you a gloss that’s there, but not there like that weird gloss you get with cornstarch.” I responded, “Butter in your Chinese food?” Talde said, “I’m telling you.”