Cast Iron

Vaca Frita

June 26, 2021
4 Ratings
  • Serves 4
Author Notes

I discovered vaca frita (literally -- fried cow) in a short-lived and long-mourned after it closed Cuban restaurant in midtown Memphis, a few years ago. I never had a clue how to make it until a couple of years ago, I was in South Beach and watched a street vendor make it and stuff it in a sandwich for a passer-by. Finally did some research, found several recipes, and played around until I got it like I wanted it. It's one of my favorite meals, in part because it can be prepped in advance. I like mine with fried plantains, coconut rice, and black bean and corn salad. - Kayb —Kayb

Test Kitchen Notes

We loved this recipe first for its cuts-to-the-chase name (a relative of the equally vivid Cuban favorite ropa vieja, a.k.a. old clothes) and for Kayb's lively narrative, with its cringing and teeth-gritting (see step two) -- but the bright, well-structured flavors kept us coming back. The ingredients are straightforward -- it's in the way they're applied. You build flavor at every turn, first boiling the steak -- yes, really -- with aromatics; then shredding it for a long soak in garlic, lime, cumin and fresh oregano; then sauteing with onions until crispy. And so we say, without the slightest hesitation: More fried cow, please. - A&M —The Editors

What You'll Need
  • 2 pounds flank steak
  • 2 onions
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
  • juice of three limes
  • 2 tablespoons neutral flavored oil
  1. Put about two quarts of water on to boil in a large Dutch oven. Add the bay leaf, one onion, quartered, the salt, and three of the cloves of garlic, smashed flat with the blade of a knife.
  2. When the water boils, cringe, grit your teeth, and drop the raw flank steak in. It feels wrong. It really isn't. Boil until it's completely done, about 30 minutes.
  3. Fish the grey chunk of flank steak out onto a cutting board. Strain the veggies out of the stock, and put it aside for future use.
  4. When the flank steak is cool enough to handle, shred it, discarding the gristly bits and any fat.
  5. In a bowl large enough to accommodate the shredded beef, mix the lime juice, cumin, and the remaining garlic, finely minced. Add the beef and the fresh oregano, which you have minced. Give it a few good tosses to make sure the lime juice coats the beef shreds well, and go away and leave it to marinate for an hour or so on the counter.
  6. Peel and halve the other onion, then thinly slice it. Heat a cast iron skillet or grill pan over high heat, add the oil, and the onion slices. Stir and toss until they're starting to get translucent and a little brown in spots.
  7. Add the beef. Stir and toss until the beef starts to get browned and crispy in spots. How browned and how crispy are up to your personal taste. Depending on how much beef you have and how large your skillet is, you may want to do this in two batches; it browns easier and more quickly if it's not crowded.
  8. Serve immediately, with extra lime on the side.
Contest Entries

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • So sett
    So sett
  • Boomdog02
  • Bevi
  • fiveandspice
  • cookinginvictoria
I'm a business professional who learned to cook early on, and have expanded my tastes and my skills as I've traveled and been exposed to new cuisines and new dishes. I love fresh vegetables, any kind of protein on the grill, and breakfasts that involve fried eggs with runny yolks. My recipes tend toward the simple and the Southern, with bits of Asia or the Mediterranean or Mexico thrown in here and there. And a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a float in the lake, as pictured, is a pretty fine lunch!

42 Reviews

Roz April 26, 2021
I found shredding the boiled flank steak to be a bit difficult, so last night I did the 'boil' step in the instant pot (high pressure, 30 minutes) and the meat fell apart as I removed it. Yay! My difficulties with the shredding process had deterred me from making this dish more often.
So S. March 10, 2021
Super yummy.
I boiled, shredded the night before and then popped the meat and marinade in the fridge to marinade overnight for lunch the next day :)
Nycr October 18, 2020
I made this and it is indeed delicious. However I can’t help it but point out that there’s no mention of salt in the marinade or frying process. The only salt used was at the time of boiling but that certainly is not enough. I salted the beef at the time of frying and it was perfect. Otherwise there is no salt.
Miriam November 26, 2018
I made this recipe and I think is the best vaca frita ever! I used sour orange instead of lemon and my family gave me a lot of compliments. Thank you
Miriam November 26, 2018
Correction bitter orange instead of lemon. Sorry
Boomdog02 February 10, 2014
wow, it's only 10 am and you got my mouth watering...
Gourmando August 6, 2011
Made Vaca Frita last night. Everyone loved it, including the children. I, especially, love the idea that you can boil and shred the meet ahead of time. Will be making this again--and again.
Bevi August 3, 2011
Congrats on being runner up. This is a great recipe and I look forward to trying it!
fiveandspice August 3, 2011
Congrats on being runner up Kayb! This is such a great recipe and interesting technique, I'm so happy you shared it!
cookinginvictoria August 2, 2011
Many congrats, kayb! Love all of the unusual techniques in this recipe. I have saved it and can't wait to try it!
Arathi August 1, 2011
KayB, I made this yesterday and it was really delicious. The "ropy" texture from boiling and then frying was really amazing. I've eaten tacos and other street food stuffed with similar fillings and always wondered how they got it to taste quite like that. Thanks for clearing up the mystery! I followed your suggestion and served it with a bean, corn and avocado salad and brown rice cooked in the broth from boiling the steak, with some coconut thrown in. Those were perfect sides - my guests gobbled it up. Thank you so much!
Kayb August 1, 2011
So glad you enjoyed! You can also boil and shred the meat, and then fry it later, which is another plus; I often boil some on the weekend, and then it's a real quickie to marinate (I warm it back up in some boiling water and drain first) and fry -- put it in to marinate when you get home from work, and by the time you change your clothes, fix a drink, and throw together some sides, it's ready to fry!
Cara B. July 30, 2011
Yum!!!! I hope you win, Mom!
Kayb August 1, 2011
Thanks, sweetie!
Cara B. July 30, 2011
Love it! You best win!
Lori L. July 29, 2011
Wow. I've never in my life boiled red meat with the exception of ribs--once--to shorten the grill time. This seems so interesting. Can't wait to try it. How did you discover it?
Kayb July 29, 2011
When I saw the street vendor in South Beach do it, it was apparent to me that the meat had been boiled; it was a gray, stringy mass (and quite unappetizing!). But seeing the "magic" when it was browned on a hot-hot-hot pan with the onions and stuffed into a Cuban roll and sprinkled with a little lime juice made me a believer. So I commenced hunting down recipes and the rest was just tinkering with seasonings until I got it the way I wanted it.
TiggyBee July 29, 2011
Congrats Kayb - what a great recipe!!
Kayb August 1, 2011
Thanks! It's lots of fun, and always shocks people!
Bevi July 28, 2011
Congrats kayb. This looks like the perfect summer recipe. I will try this in a few days.
Kayb August 1, 2011
Thank you! I'll be anxious to hear -- hope you like it!
LRGRL July 28, 2011
Wonderful Kay! I can't wait to try this one.
Kayb August 1, 2011
Thanks! Hope you enjoy!
Kitchen B. July 28, 2011
Congratulations KayB, I love the flavours in this recipe.....
Kayb August 1, 2011
Thank you! Hard to go wrong with lime, garlic, onion, bay leaf and oregano!
lorigoldsby July 28, 2011
Congrats!! was on the road all last week and missed interesting but makes sense? Can't wait to try it--love ropa veija!
Kayb August 1, 2011
Thanks! Hope you enjoy!
fiveandspice July 28, 2011
Congratulations Kayb! This sounds absolutely WONDERFUL! I don't know how I missed it before, but I'm definitely saving it to try it.
Kayb August 1, 2011
Thanks! Hope you enjoy....
Kayb July 28, 2011
Thanks! It's a thrill to be a finalist after a long dry spell -- thank you all so much for the great compliments! I love this stuff....may have to make some this weekend!