Munch Madness 2015: PF Chang’s Mongolian Beef

Lance Price, professional musician and culinary enthusiast, has taken on the most popular copycat of PF Chang’s Mongolian Beef on Pinterest. Here’s how he fared with the recipe from Jo Cooks. (Ed. note: The Jo Cooks recipe turned out to be an adaptation of another from Baked in the South, which doesn’t appear to have many of the issues that Lance encountered with this version. Too bad that one isn’t the most repinned! But please remember—this is all in fun.)

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Lance Price puts a PFChang's Mongolian beef copycat recipe to the test

Pretty Far From Chang’s Mongolian Beef. That’s what I would call this dish. Even though it’d been a while since I’d had the original, I knew this recipe was going to be a stinker just looking at it.

I can’t decide if the recipe was lazy, or just written by someone who didn’t have a lot of experience cooking Asian-inspired dishes. Or cooking period. Not that I have a ton of experience with Asian cooking, I just love Asian flavors and in the last few years took a liking to my wok after a stint in an apartment where grilling was no longer an option. So I learned a few Asian inspired dishes and picked up a few cooking techniques and staple ingredients that seemed common in Asian inspired food. I say “Asian inspired” because, come on, are we really cooking authentic Chinese food over here?

At first glance, I wanted to change basically everything about this recipe, so it took every fiber of my being to follow it to the letter. It was also pretty confusing. Needless to say, I was a grumbly mess the whole time, but I got through it. The ingredients were common enough, I actually had to buy vegetable oil because I do all of my wokkin’ with canola. (Sesame oil to season. Everything else I do with olive oil.) But I felt like there were some ingredients missing that I expected to see in an Asian beef stir fry recipe. Like rice wine or sherry, sesame oil, or even ginger.

It started off with tossing 2 lbs of sliced flank steak into ½ cup of cornstarch. Nothing out of the ordinary, especially since I vaguely remembered the beef in the original dish having a slight crispiness to it which happens when you saute or stir fry protein coated with cornstarch. So I dumped the meat into ziploc bag with ½ cup (way too much!) cornstarch as directed and set aside. But no seasoning was called for. Cause sauce.

That’s when things got weird. In a saucepan, you are to add vegetable oil, garlic (nothing about cooking the garlic in the oil, just throw it in) one cup of soy sauce (that’s over half a bottle of Kikkoman!), one cup(!) of brown sugar, and one cup(!) of water(?). Then a complaint that it took twenty minutes to get the sauce to a syrupy consistency. (That’s because you added a cup of water and then boiled it out, Bonehead. There, I just saved you 20 minutes in the future. Use it to do a little readin’ up on cooking.) Yes, there was a complaint IN the recipe. I get it, the water was probably to dilute the sauce because straight soy sauce and brown sugar is pretty powerful mojo. But, there a number of  different and better ways to have done that (add rice wine or sherry?). And it didn’t work. I digress…

“Add a ½ cup(!) of vegetable oil to a large skillet and heat the oil. Cook beef until browned.” Oh okay, so we’re frying here not stir-frying. Got it. After the meat was done I tasted it of course…and gagged. Imagine a tough, greasy, country-fried steak with zero salt or any seasoning. But that’s ok, cause sauce. Which luckily I already had going because I read ahead in the recipe and saw that it took twenty minutes to boil out the unnecessary water in order to reduce it to a syrupy consistency. So I wiped out my skillet and added back the greasy, unseasoned country-fried steak and poured the sauce over it to “stir and cook for a few minutes” for some reason. Garnished with green onion and served.

Then I was surprised. It wasn’t…terrible. A little overpowering. Really, really salty and greasy but edible. I mean, let’s face it, salt and grease taste good. Missing those few ingredients (ginger, sesame oil, rice wine anyone??) but okay with plain rice to dilute some of the saltiness. Definitely did not need to add any soy sauce. And I still had that horrible taste of greasy, unseasoned cubed steak in my mouth which was supposed to be covered (cause sauce) but that I could not untaste. Had it for dinner with Diana and my sister Connie who both agreed that it was “pretty good.”

But then I had the original dish. I hadn’t been to P. F. Chang’s in a long while. I don’t remember whether I or someone in my party had had the Mongolian Beef, but I remember trying it and it being pretty good. I remember thinking that the green onions were odd because Mongolian Beef dishes that I had in the past had regular old white onions in them. Which is why I rarely if ever ordered it. Diana and I were able to slip away at lunch (breakfast?) so we could get it and refresh my memory. And it was delicious. Waaaaay better than this half-assed attempt. Not at all greasy or salty. The meat was really tender. Surprisingly light, I actually made the comment leaving the parking lot that I didn’t feel as if I just had Chinese for breakfast. And the things that I thought would be missing were there—definitely some rice wine and sesame oil. I couldn’t find any ginger, and I took the dish apart at my table. But I still suspect it was in there, maybe powdered. Definitely something I would order again if I’m out Christmas shopping and craving some high-end mall food and the wait at Cheesecake Factory is too long.

Bottom line, not close enough to the original. In fact, I think I could make a closer copycat version myself, which I may do soon. I even found recipes online that I think would taste better and be closer to the original.

Is the copycat cheaper? Maybe because you’re making a good sized batch of it (I’ve got plenty left over if you want some). It’s really too bad the recipe did not deliver because it may be overall cheaper to make this dish for your family than to go out to eat it. The ingredients were everyday things a well-stocked kitchen would have. It wasn’t that hard to make, but could be way more streamlined. Leave out steps such as adding and then boiling out water. (I would’ve made it less salty by cutting the amount of soy sauce and sugar in half, mixing it with an equal amount of sherry in a bowl, maybe mix in some cornstarch to thicken, and then pour it over the beef that has been tossed with minced garlic and ginger and stir-fried in a little canola oil. There, I just gave you an entire improved recipe in one succinct sentence. Sorry, had to get that off of my chest. Whew.)

Without significant improvements to the recipe, you’d be better off putting on pants and going to P. F. Chang’s to get this dish. I certainly will not make it again.

Kristina Ackerman

Kristina Ackerman is a busy freelance web designer, living and DIYing with her fella and their little fella in a cute old house in Atlanta, GA, USA.