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Charles Phan's Shaking Beef at The Slanted Door in SF

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Welcome to Eater Elements, a series that explores the ideas and ingredients of noteworthy dishes.

Open for nearly 20 years, the Slanted Door in San Francisco is nothing short of an institution. For most of that time, chef Charles Phan has been serving what has become one of the most famous dishes in the city: Shaking Beef, a simple yet legendary stir-fry of beef and onion served over a bed of watercress.

While the dish was added to the restaurant's menu in 1996, the inspiration for the dish dates back further. "It started a long time ago, maybe 18 or 19 years," Phan says of his idea for the Shaking Beef. "I learned about the dish on my first visit to Vietnam, I had the dish at this empty restaurant." He decided to approach his take on Shaking Beef from a different perspective: "We take something simple and classic and make it more about the local ingredients and the local farmers here ... the dish gets better using better ingredients." Fast forward to today, and Shaking Beef has become one of the restaurant's signatures. When Phan says "it just took off," he isn't exaggerating. The restaurant sells so many orders of the dish that he estimates they spend roughly $380,000 yearly on beef for the dish alone.

Eater SF editor Allie Pape weighs in:

"The Slanted Door deserves credit for being one of the first restaurants to bring Vietnamese food to an upscale audience, and this is probably their most famous dish. It hits all the right notes: sweet, savory, salty, meaty."

Below, the elements of the Slanted Door's Shaking Beef:

1. The Beef

It didn't take long for Phan to turn his back on buying commodity meats, dropping them from his menu within a few years of opening. Phan now only uses grass-fed beef, and he is currently buying from Estancia Beef, a large-scale grass-fed beef purveyor that is USDA-certified "natural." "We have a huge demand," Phan explains. "Not everyone can supply us."

Although the Vietnamese dish is more often made with flank, Phan goes for filet mignon, which is much more tender. He cuts the beef into 1-inch cubes. This is a nod to, but not a direct copy of, the traditional bo luc lac preparation (luc lac refers to the sound of dice). "It's more like diced beef," he says, explaining that he cuts the beef larger than is traditional for his rendition of Shaking Beef. After it's cut, the cubed filet pieces marinate in salt, pepper, sugar, and oil overnight.

2. The Vegetables

When it comes to the vegetables in his Shaking Beef, Phan turns to the California bounty. Onions are provided by Veritable Vegetable, an organic vegetable distributor. Along with onions, Phan also uses scallions from Wo Sing, a company that the Slanted Door has worked with since day one. The final component here is garlic, which Phan buys from Christopher Ranch, an organic garlic producer based in Gilroy, California.

The final vegetable component of the dish is a bed of watercress from Sausalito Springs farm in Sonoma. The watercress isn't really prepped, rather it is laid on the serving platter to form a bed underneath the stir-fry. Phan notes that "the heat of the beef will melt the salad" as diners are eating.

3. The Sauce

The primary sauce in the dish is extremely simple. To make it, Phan combines sugar with soy sauce, fish sauce, and rice wine vinegar. The stir-fry sauce is almost like a "finishing" component Phan says, added towards the end of the cooking process.

4. The Assembly

The key pieces of equipment Phan uses to create the Shaking Beef are his commercial-grade range and the wok. He notes that the wok, combined with the higher power range, allows for fast and hot cooking that is basically impossible for a home cook to emulate. With the wok, Phan can prepare two orders at a time.

He begins the cooking process by adding oil to the wok. Once it is smoking, he adds the filet. Getting an even brown on the filet is a priority. He sears on each side and "all four corners," and it takes about two to three minutes for the beef to get "crispy but not overcooked." After the meat is done, he drains the oil. Doing so allows the flavors of the dish to remain clear and clean: the used oil "dirties up the flavors of your food."

Next Phan adds fresh oil and brown the garlic. He then adds the onions, scallions, and the stir-fry sauce. He also adds a sliver of Straus Family Creamery butter to bring it together, and then tosses the ingredients. "You don't really shake it," he says.

The final component is served on the side: a lime dipping sauce. The sauce, like stir-fry sauce and the marinade, is quite simple: it's salt, pepper, and lime juice. He said that when he served the dish with a wedge of lime, patrons would squeeze the lime over the dish and "ruin it." Instead, he created the sauce for them. "We give them the sauce so they dip it," he says. "People were assuming that it was like lemon over squid. If you make the sauce, it's got salt and it makes a difference."

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