Last weekend we had a couple of exceptionally wonderful friends come all the way from snowy Cambridge to visit us and meet Luke for the first time. Their visit was especially well-timed, not least because B3 was at his chattiest and chubbiest, now that he has 4 1/2 months under his belt (although he was also at his sleep-training saddest come nighttime — sorry, guys), but also because we had a beautiful, sunny weekend here in California, with the kind of weather that I hear is in short supply in Cambridge right about now.
Hearing about the snow most definitely did not make me miss the Northeast, but seeing our friends did, and when we got to reminiscing about Cambridge, it’s possible that a little bit of nostalgia crept in — especially, to no one’s surprise, when we got to talking about food. There’s a tiny Japanese food hall in Porter Square, one that lives somewhat inexplicably in the middle of a university dorm building. It springs suddenly into being, complete with cloth awnings and the bewitching smell of spicy miso and soy sauce, when you head down a hallway across from the security desk. There’s a sushi bar adorned with red paper lanterns; an udon shop full of patrons with heads bent over steaming bowls; a ramen joint with about 8 tables, a line down the hallway, and the best spicy miso ramen that nine of my dollars have ever purchased. It was our favorite place to go after class, the kind that we’d trek to even (or especially) in the kind of weather that’s going on right about now, shoulders hunched and chin burrowed into the down jacket I hope never to dig out of my closet ever again.
Right at the entrance to the food hall there was Café Mami, which specialized in what I thought of as comfort food, donburi rice bowls and curries and sizzling beef plates. What they called their “yaki beef and tofu set” was my favorite — tender, thinly-sliced beef marinated in a deeply sweet and savory sauce, wobbly tofu nestled here and there, a scattering of bean sprouts and (this might be weird, but I loved it) a blanket of melting white cheese on top, served with a soy-glazed carrot, a nubbin of baked potato, and endless refills of white rice.
I’d been too intimidated by how good their food was to try to make it at home, especially when Google searches for “yaki beef” turned up nothing that looked like what I remembered, but some guesswork with the description on their menu, a couple of recipes for teriyaki marinade, and my preexisting love for similarly-marinated beef bulgogi was enough to make that fear dissipate. The beef is savory and sweet from a soak in soy sauce and brown sugar; mirin adds a bit more sweetness and that distinctive teriyaki flavor, while sake, ginger, and garlic help to cut any unwanted gamey flavor in the meat. Tofu and onions go in the pan with the beef to soak up all that sauce, and the gooey cheese on top is, at least to me, a no-brainer. (You can, of course, omit it.) Now that a reasonable imitation of their dish is possible in my kitchen, I’m adding this to the list of reasons — along with pudgy baby thighs and 80-degree March weather — why our friends should feel free to move out of Cambridge and right over here to California with us.
Cafe Mami’s yaki beef & tofu
- ¼ cup soy sauce, plus more as needed to cook
- ¼ cup brown sugar, plus more as needed to cook
- ¼ cup mirin
- ¼ cup sake
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 2 teaspoons finely grated ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red chili pepper
- 1 lb thinly sliced beef ribeye, brisket, or sirloin
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil or other neutral oil
- 1 cup thinly sliced onion
- 6 oz tofu, cubed (the firmness of your choice; I prefer extra-firm)
- To serve:
- ½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese (optional)
- ¼ cup mung bean sprouts, blanched and drained (optional)
- ¼ cup thinly sliced scallions
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
- The night before or 1-2 hours ahead: Whisk together the soy sauce, mirin, sake, brown sugar, garlic, ginger, and crushed red pepper. Combine with the beef in a large Ziploc bag or shallow covered dish and let marinate for 1-2 hours, or ideally overnight.
- The day of: Prepare an oven-safe dish. Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add half the beef in a single layer to the pan, along with half the marinade, half the tofu and half the onions. Let cook, stirring, until beef is cooked through and onions are softened, about 4-5 minutes. Taste and adjust with more soy sauce and brown sugar, if desired. Remove to the oven-safe dish and repeat with the remaining beef, tofu, and onions. Sprinkle the cheese over top (if using) and slide the dish under the broiler for 5-10 seconds, just until the cheese is melted. Add the mung bean sprouts, scallions, and sesame seeds. Enjoy with warm rice.