Not Your Typical Take-Out Dish: Ocean Broccoli Beef

There are some dishes that you can walk into any Chinese restaurant in America and expect to see on the menu.

Beef with Broccoli is one of them.

An innocuous, if uninspired dish, beef with broccoli isn’t necessarily bad, but neither is it necessarily good. In its better formulations, it is a rather harmless stir fry of tender beef slices and lightly browned broccoli florets seasoned with onions, garlic and ginger and enhanced by a savory brown sauce.

In its less entrancing incarnations, it is a flavorless dish of greasy beef and overcooked broccoli doused in a gloppy umber goo that has no recognizable flavor other than being vaguely sweet and somewhat brown.

The truth is, I don’t really like Beef with Broccoli, even when it is not bad; I prefer the Cantonese dish it was based on, Beef With Gai Lan. And the reason I don’t really like Beef with Broccoli isn’t even that I am being snobby and preferring an actual Cantonese recipe to the adapted Chinese-American version; it is more that once I have eaten Ocean Broccoli Beef, I don’t ever want plain old Beef With Broccoli ever again.

Ocean Broccoli Beef? What is that, I am certain you are asking.

Ocean Broccoli Beef is the first and best version I have ever had of Beef with Broccoli and is the standard to which I hold ever other version of the dish. And I always find other versions seriously lacking, because Ocean Broccoli Beef was outstanding.

It was sweet. It was sour. It was tingly-spicy. It was garlicky, gingery and oh-so-good.

It was addictive.

It was a signature dish of the China Garden Restaurant in Huntington, West Virginia, back in the day, and it was so good that when it was on the lunch special menu, for a week, office workers would line up OUT THE DOOR to wait for a table so they could eat their plate of it with rice, an egg roll and some soup. I am serious. Out the door, waiting for a table. Sometimes out the door and around the freaking corner.

In the rain.

I mean it. (I told you that stuff was addictive!)

Ocean Broccoli Beef was a powerfully amazingly delicious dish, and I have finally, after years of playing around with it, figured out how Chef Huy made it.

His Beef with Broccoli was different because the sauce was different. Vastly different, in fact, from the typical Chinese-American brown sauce. This was no thickened soy sauce with chicken broth sort of sauce–it was sour, it was sweet, it was spicy, it was tingly, and it had a touch of—something that gave it the undefinable scent of the sea to it.

Hence the name, “Ocean Broccoli Beef.”

It isn’t just oyster sauce–oyster sauce being the traditional main flavoring for Beef with Gai Lan. No. It isn’t just that. There is sugar involved, and chile garlic paste and vinegar, and, well, other stuff.

A few years back, I was thinking about it, remembering all those times I had carried plate after plate after plate of Ocean Broccoli Beef (Number 4 on the rotating lunch special menu), and all of the customers who offered to pay me untold sums of money to find out how to make the sauce. I always turned them down–even if I could have figured out how to make it, I would never have sold the secret to Huy’s special dish.

Now that Huy has retired, however, and the restaurant is long closed (its been gone for over ten years now), I don’t feel guilty about sharing my version of his truly amazing dish.

I figured out a while ago that what made it so special was that it was a variation of the classic Sichuan “Fish-Fragrant Sauce,” which on American Chinese restaurant menus is called “Garlic Sauce” because no one wants to think that they are eating sauce that smells like fish.

The variation is simple–there is a bit more sugar in it, and a little bit of high quality oyster sauce. I prefer the Amoy brand that has some dried scallops in it; this sauce is redolent with the aroma of the ocean which is essential to this dish.

Anyway, here is the dish that launched a thousand lunch specials back in the day in Huntington, and energized office workers to stand in the rain for half their lunch hour, just so they could get a taste of Huy’s amazing, sweet, sour, hot, salty and oceanic sauce.

Ocean Broccoli Beef
Ingredients:

1 pound top round beef, thinly sliced on the bias into pieces 1″ wide by 2 1/2″ long
1 tablespoon Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper
4 tbsp. black rice vinegar
2 tbsp. dark soy sauce
1 tbsp. Shao Hsing wine
2 1/2 tbsp. sugar
3 tsp. chili garlic paste
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1/4 tsp. sesame oil
2 teaspoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced (about one cup)
3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 head garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 pound broccoli florets
1/2 cup baby carrots, thinly sliced on the bias
1 tablespoon Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry

Method:

Toss the beef with the wine, oyster sauce and cornstarch and allow to marinate for at least twenty minutes, but no more than an hour.

Mix together the next nine ingredients–from the black pepper to the cornstarch–in a cup, stirring to remove all the lumps from the cornstarch. Set aside.

Preheat wok over high heat until a thin ribbon of smoke spirals up from the metal. Add peanut oil and allow to heat for thirty seconds. Add onion, and cook, stirring, until it turns light golden brown. Add ginger, and keep cooking for another minute. Add meat, and spread out in a single layer in the wok. Allow to cook undisturbed for a minute or two, or until the beef browns on the bottom, and then stir and fry until most of the pink is gone from the beef.

Sprinkle the garlic and soy sauce over the beef and keep stir frying for another thirty seconds. Add broccoli florets and baby carrots and sprinkle the wine over, and stir fry until the meat shows no red, the broccoli is deep green and tender-crisp and the carrots are tender-crisp–about a minute and a half to two minutes.

Add the sauce ingredients to the wok, and cook, stirring, until it turns into a dark brown, fragrant glaze.

Remove wok from heat and scrape contents into a heated serving bowl or platter. Serve with steamed rice.

20 Comments

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  1. Oh that looks wonderful! I have a guilty affection for orange beef with broccoli but what I really like is the broccoli with the sweet/sour sauce and the deep fried beef always kind of gives me the wiggins, so this looks like something I must try. You just keep giving me reasons to expand my Chinese pantry!

    Comment by Laura — February 2, 2008 #

  2. I swear to God you could make me want to cook and eat monkey nuggets on a stick. You’re just that good.

    Comment by Lisa — February 2, 2008 #

  3. What can I use to substitute for black rice vinegar? Great recipe I want to make it tonight.

    Comment by tudorpot — February 2, 2008 #

  4. This is tastier than orange beef, Laura. You will like it. But am , if you want an orange flavor, add minced orange zest–about a tablespoon of it–with the ginger, and garnish with long strips of orange zest.

    Lisa–I’m glad you think I am good enough to make monkey nuggets sound good, but I will leave the simian cuisine to leopards and jaguars. I figure they know even better what to do with monkey nuggets than I do…. ;-)

    Tudor–use balsamic vinegar or white rice vinegar, but if you use white rice vinegar, use about a teaspoon or so less of it.

    Comment by Barbara — February 2, 2008 #

  5. ‘ello
    im a classic neophyte to cooking, raised around amazing cooks my entire life, so i felt the need to pursue cooking on my own.
    i just found this site today, looking for some good indian fusion recipes, and love everything ive seen so far
    im going to have to try the ocean broccoli beef, because frankly chinese has been the only way my parents get me too eat my broccoli lol.

    thanks much for all the wonderful recipes, keep it up, ill keep coming back for more!

    Comment by eric — February 2, 2008 #

  6. Thanks for this wonderful recipe. It’s funny, a couple of weeks ago, my husband felt like having orange flavored beef, and since we don’t have a go-to Chinese take-out place, I made it at home. It was good, but I would have liked more flavor. I think I’m going to consult this recipe next time.

    Comment by Susan from Food Blogga — February 4, 2008 #

  7. Wow. Guess I should be very happy I happen to have just the cut I need in the freezer and it will only take me overnight to thaw it.

    Looks like I know what I am making for dinner tomorrow night.

    Comment by Jenna — February 5, 2008 #

  8. This was just OK for me. First off, I ground 1 tbsp of black pepper and that was probably twice as much really necessary. I also felt like the vinegar was a little overpowering. Not sure if 1 tbsp of oyster sauce is enough to dub this recipe ‘Ocean’ Broccoli Beef (as in having the flavor of the sea).

    I think with a few tweaks this would be better suited to my taste and next time I’ll fiddle with it while still keeping the same theme. Up the oyster sauce, down the vinegar and fresh pepper.

    Keep up the great work Barbara, your blog is one of the best out there by far!

    Comment by Mike — February 8, 2008 #

  9. Barbara – great recipe! Thank you so much for posting. I really enjoy your blog and visit often.

    So glad your dad is back home!

    Comment by Holly — February 11, 2008 #

  10. Barbara, I’m just loving your blog!
    Question…what brand of chili garlic paste do you use? So many recipes call for it, but I find that there are different kinds at my local asian store…some are as simple as ground chilis with garlic, and others are much more involved. Also, I have not cooked with black rice vinegar, are the brand recommendations on this? I’m eager to try this recipe!

    Comment by Mary — May 21, 2008 #

  11. Mary–first of all, here is a post that will not only answer these questions, it will answer questions you haven’t known to ask yet!

    http://www.tigersandstrawberries.com/2007/02/21/staple-ingredients-of-the-chinese-pantry/

    For black vinegar, I use the same brand as I do for regular rice vinegar, but you can use balsamic vinegar instead if you cannot find black Chinese vinegar.

    As for chili garlic paste–this past year I have been using my own homemade chili garlic paste that I made from my own home-grown kung pao chilies, garlic grown here in Athens, salt and rice vinegar. It tastes amazingly fresh and light and has a very bright aroma and flavor. I prefer it to the commercial kind. I made a half gallon of it and have used it for a year.

    I am glad you like the blog–ask any question you like!

    Comment by Barbara — May 21, 2008 #

  12. Barbara- I absolutely love your blog! I just ordered my first wok, and this will be the first recipe I make in it when I receive it!

    Your homemade chili sauce recipe looks fantastic! Would you be willing share it? I had a homemade chili sauce in a restaurant last week, and it was far superior to the jarred kind!

    Comment by Kim — August 22, 2008 #

  13. hi barbara! i’ll tell dad that you wrote about him…he’ll be thrilled! he is still cooking up a storm though not ocean broccoli beef. yes, you’re right that the chinese name is something to do with fish (fragrant fish or Yuxiang), even though there is not a drop of fish anywhere in there! hope you are all well !

    Comment by kathy khuu — January 12, 2009 #

  14. Oh, Kathy!

    Your Dad, even though he didn’t know it at the time, taught me so much about food. He really did. I credit the real Chinese dishes he fed me when I worked for him for educating my palate. Without telling me in words, he taught me about how flavors, colors, textures and ingredients must be balanced in a dish.

    I am glad to hear he is still cooking–please tell him that it was longing for his food that propelled me headlong into my lifelong quest to learn how to cook Chinese foods well.

    Comment by Barbara — January 13, 2009 #

  15. Thank you Barbara! I was absolutely thrilled to find this recipe! I was one of the faithful who stood in the rain back in the day just for this special dish. Keep up the great work!

    Comment by Pam — February 28, 2009 #

  16. Thank you Barbara for sharing this, I made it and it tastes quite similar to the sichuan chicken dish I guess owing to the black vinegar…still very tasty. It’s funny before I added the sauce mixture it smelled like plain ol’ usual beef and broccoli but then the sauce kicks it up a notch! :)

    Comment by Deanna — December 9, 2009 #

  17. Barbara Great Recipe!
    Recently, I was at the Asian Market picking up Thai fish sauce, thanks for the Golden Boy recommendation! As I was wandering the isle I found a bottle of black vinegar and quickly added it to the basket thinking, I know there is a special recipe on Tigers & Strawberries that needs its. Made Ocean Beef and Broccoli last night, served it with whole wheat spaghetti that I tossed in the wok to coat in the sauce. (Please forgive my glaring Americanizing, but just didn’t feel like rice) It was amazingly tasty. Thanks so much for all your recipes! You really have imparted to me a love of ethnic cooking.

    Comment by KCatGU — March 21, 2011 #

  18. Sounds delicious. I’m going to to make it but I have a question. Do you really mean a HEAD of garlic, or a clove? A head sounds really excessive for the amount of beef & broccoli. Just found your blog, BTW and am loving all the wonderful recipes I’m find! Thanks for all your work, and your sharing!

    Comment by Deb — April 6, 2011 #

  19. Yeah, that was back when I was using really small garlic heads. I’d use three large cloves these days instead. Now that I am using locally grown large heads of garlic–I don’t use as much. So, sub about three large cloves and see what happens, Deb.

    Comment by Barbara — April 18, 2011 #

  20. Too cool !! I was doing a search for broccoli beef recipes when, on a wild whim, I decided to search for “Ocean Broccoli Beef”. You see, while I don’t live in Huntington, I too was addicted to the China Garden’s version. I was introduced to the dish back in the late 1980′s, and was instantly hooked. I have made many trips to Huntington (100 mile round trip drive) to indulge my addiction. I was sorely disappointed when the China Garden closed. When I found this website, I was thrilled to find out this was actually referring to the recipe I knew and loved. It is on the menu for tonight!!

    Comment by Christina — December 6, 2011 #

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