Vaca Frita (Cuban Pan-Fried Flank Steak)


My husband eats lunch like this on most workdays – what is colloquially known in Puerto Rico as a mixta: a combination of rice, beans, and meat.  The flavors of this particular mixta are distinctively Cuban: the savory black beans cooked with onions, peppers, garlic and a little vinegar, vaca frita with pepper and onions, and a couple of fried plantains on the side.  Preparing vaca frita was a definite first for me, and I hadn’t made black beans this way since college.  I don’t like beans too much.  That makes me a terrible Puerto Rican and NOLA-phile although I do cook them for DH at least every other month.  He does get his fix regularly!

Vaca frita is essentially a twice-cooked flank steak.  The first stage involves poaching the meat for about an hour with water, peppercorns, and bay leaves.  After the meat is cooked and cooled, it is sliced into small pieces, tossed with a couple of tablespoons of sherry and seasonings, and then pan-fried with onions and green peppers until crispy outside.   While researching recipes, I came across what seems to be a point of conflict between vaca frita purists and others – whether the meat should be shredded or sliced.  Another extremely popular Cuban dish, ropa vieja (‘old clothes’) also consists of flank steak, but shredded and simmered in a tomato based sauce until tender.  Purists say that the flank steak for vaca frita should not be shredded, but cut into small pieces.  I went with the purists this time, even though DH’s favorite version, the one served in Miami institution Versailles, is shredded.  I have a hunch that has to do more with restaurant logistics than actual tradition.

My favorite part of making vaca frita was seeing the meat slices crisp up.  The sherry not only tendererized the meat but the sugars were crucial in getting that crunchy exterior.  The spice blend used after the meat is strong, so feel free to cut back on the spices if you are watching your salt intake.

Vaca Frita
(2-3 servings)
Adapted from Taste of Cuba

The Flank Steak

  • 1 pound flank steak, trimmed of visible fat
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • 6 peppercorns

Poach the flank steak, with enough water to cover the meat and spices for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Remove the meat from the poaching liquid and allow to cool.


The Seasonings

  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • Dry sherry

Slice the flank steak in small, bite sized slices, cutting against the grain.  Pound these slices with a meat mallet to increase the surface area by at least 25%.  Toss the spices together in a bowl, and add the steak pieces.  Add a couple of splashes of sherry and let the meat rest for at least twenty minutes.


Bringing it Together

  • One small onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cubanelle or bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • Canola or grapeseed oil

Heat a skillet to medium high heat, and add about two tablespoons of cooking oil.  Working in batches, lightly fry the meat with onions and peppers until the meat crisps and the vegetables soften, about four minutes.


I served the meat rice with black beans – modifying slightly the recipe from the back of the Goya can – and tostones, twice fried green plantains.  Cubans normally serve these savory dishes with the ripe, sweet plantains but we got green ones in the market earlier that day.


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Adriana is a financial analyst by day, avid home cook in the evenings, and food blogger and runner in the strange hours between those two. When not in the kitchen concocting meals and stories to pass around, she is out looking for the next great bite (or the ingredients to make it at home), checking what's new at the market, or planning a trip around great food and wine.

7 Responses to “Vaca Frita (Cuban Pan-Fried Flank Steak)”

  1. yummychunklet
    April 6, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

    This looks really good!

    April 6, 2011 at 5:48 pm #

    That’s hubby’s lunch!?! Wow… lucky guy! I hope my husband doesn’t see this… I send him to work with sandwiches. :))

  3. Adriana
    April 6, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    Hubby buys his own lunch during the work week, and lucks out on the weekends!  I work full-time, so all I send him to work with is a kiss.  Rice, beans, and meat – the mixta – is available at pretty much every cafeteria and restaurant during lunch time.  Today he actually had a codfish salad with root vegetables that would be great to replicate for a future post.  

  4. Elaine
    April 7, 2011 at 4:55 am #

    What a fabulous lunch! My husband would love this! I make beans every week and make different varieties. I have never heard of the twice-cooked flank steak, but I want to try fixing it for my family. I know they all would love it. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  5. Annie
    April 8, 2011 at 11:17 am #

    I am so glad I found your blog. This dish looks amazing!

  6. StephRussell26
    April 20, 2011 at 7:22 pm #

    Looks wonderful! I love how crispy it looks and I bet it’s jam-packed with flavor to boot! These are the kinds of dishes that I love and bring back so much nostalgia from home. As far as the huancaina sauce you inquired about, I would try and source out some of the jarred paste. I used an organic variety from course it’s not as great as the fresh/frozen kind but even I, in Michigan, find it difficult to find that stuff. :-/As a substitute, though, you can use just a smidge of habanero and maybe some turmeric to give the sauce that orange hue. 🙂 Hope that helps.


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