A Formula for Any Stir-Fry (& a Beef One to Start With)

January 18, 2017

On a visit to San Francisco several years ago, I tried to grab lunch at The Slanted Door, Charles Phan’s adored Vietnamese restaurant in the Ferry Building. When the hostess told me there was an hour wait for a table for one, I grabbed a pork bun at Out the Door, their take-out spot, and called it a day. Shortly thereafter I ordered their cookbook so I could dream about what I’d missed. Shaking beef, I’ve since learned, is the restaurant’s signature dish. It’s also one of the easiest, most accessible recipes in the book.

The essentials of the dish include thinly sliced beef, red onion, scallions, watercress, and a soy-based sauce. “Shaking” refers to how you move the skillet in order to cook the meat, which at The Slanted Door is cubes of filet mignon. The vegetables play a supporting role, and the flavorful sauce at the end is mounted with butter, which thickens it. It evokes the taste of the rich, red wine reductions that pool around steakhouse filets. 

I’ve made the recipe several times now, and discovered it’s as good when prepared as true to its original form as when it barely resembles it. For instance, I’ve loved a simple chicken thigh-for-skirt steak substitution. However, I’ve also loved a clean-out-the fridge variation where pan-fried tofu replaced the beef, a few carrots and a handful of Brussels sprouts (shredded in the food processor) replaced the onions and scallions, the addition of a sliced jalapeño brought some heat, and sliced shitakes beefed it up. This same assembly found purpose for a tired bunch of cilantro and an exhausted bundle of kale—how nice!

Photo by Alexandra Stafford

If you memorize the sauce, which is nearly equal parts soy sauce, mirin, and rice vinegar plus a little fish sauce and sugar, this can be a back-pocket kind of recipe, the format being this: Stir-fry a protein, add some vegetables and a sauce, toss it all with fresh, crisp greens. I find it no less satisfying when the meat and oil are cut back, the vegetables are increased, and the butter is omitted. It comes together very quickly, so mise en place is essential here. Be sure your vegetables are chopped and your sauce is stirred before firing up that wok. 

Photo by Alexandra Stafford

A few notes:

  • The lettuce: Use something sturdy, like Romaine, which will soften but not disintegrate under the heat and weight of the stir-fried vegetables and meat. Arugula I’ve found to be too delicate. The original recipe calls for watercress, and I imagine Swiss chard and spinach would work well here, too. If you use something like kale, be sure to shred it finely, which will help it soften more quickly.

  • The protein: Use your favorite. I’ve used beef, chicken, and tofu. Though the original recipe calls for filet mignon, I love skirt steak for its flavor. Other good choices include: rib eye, flank steak, New York strip, and sirloin. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs can be substituted and handled similarly to the beef, but, of course, should be fully cooked. If using tofu, coating the cubes in cornstarch and pan-frying them creates such a nice texture—crisp but receptive to sauce—but you could oven-bake the cubes as well. Other options include pork tenderloin and shrimp, but you could also put to use leftover bits of meat or seafood you have in the fridge.

  • The vegetables: You can tailor this recipe to what you have on hand. The key is to be sure everything is finely cut (by hand or shredded in a food processor) to ensure they’ll be cooked in under two minutes.

  • If you want to keep this completely vegetarian (and vegan, in fact), omit the fish sauce and use tofu or another vegetarian source of protein in place of the meat. 

What do you like to stir-fry? Tell us about it in the comments.

Shop the Story

Alexandra Stafford is a writer, photographer, and occasional stationery designer based in upstate New York, where she is writing a cookbook. You can read more of her work on her blog.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Fresh Tomatoes
    Fresh Tomatoes
  • Alexandra Stafford
    Alexandra Stafford
I write the blog alexandra's kitchen, a place for mostly simple, sometimes fussy, and always seasonal recipes. My cookbook, Bread Toast Crumbs is available everywhere books are sold.


Fresh T. January 18, 2017
Looks amazeballs!
Alexandra S. January 20, 2017
Thanks, Dana!