East meets cornfields: Grilled steak, exotic flavors and honest food in an Iowa cafe

by Terry B on September 1, 2010

Chinese noodles, flavored with sesame oil, sesame seeds and cilantro and fired up with crushed red pepper, are topped with tender strips of grilled flank steak seasoned with cumin, chili powder and garlic. Recipe below.


When people speak of the exotic flavors of the East, they aren’t generally referring to Eastern Iowa. But when we made a recent road trip there, we found just that.

Not exotic in an over-the-top-trend-of-the-moment sort of way (no Kobe beef sliders topped with shaved truffles, for instance). The approach we found more than once—and appreciated thoroughly each time we did—was starting with quality (and often local) ingredients and doing something fresh and unexpected with them.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the Lincoln Cafe. Located on the main drag of the tiny one-stoplight town of Mount Vernon, lincoln-cafe-windowthe cafe has two words painted on its front window that tell you what’s in store for you as you enter: “honest food.”

If that doesn’t clue you in on their approach to food, there’s this. The URL for their website contains neither the word Lincoln nor the word Cafe. Instead it is this: foodisimportant.com. And if you get a “food is important” tattoo (all specs approved by chef/owner Matt Steigerwald), you get free fries for life.

Needles scare me, and we live too far away to make the most of such an offer, but the fries really were that good. So was what I had for lunch that day: Grilled flat iron steak and sesame chili noodles, topped with a basil cucumber salad.

Each part of it was delicious. Together, they were amazing. The steak was simply seasoned with salt and pepper, then grilled, a pitch-perfect expression of Midwestern bounty. The refreshing salad, with its paper-thin cucumber slices, tasted like summer. But the sesame chili noodles elevated everything, adding an unexpected “where did that come from” moment.

Rather than try to slavishly recreate this wonderful meal, I’ve used it as a jumping off point. The noodles first caught my attention, so I started there. I added cilantro for its fresh kick and a spot of green (I jettisoned the salad, as good as it was, preferring to let the noodles and the steak be the stars). For the steak, I switched from flat iron to the more readily available flank steak. Both come from similarly structured muscle and are flavorful cuts that respond well to marinating and quick grilling (and turn tough when overcooked). And finally, one of the nice things about the noodles is that they are subtle in their exotic flavorings. I wanted them to stay that way. So I asked the steak to do a little more of the heavy lifting tastewise and marinated it with a rub of cumin, chili powder and garlic.


Cumin/Chili Powder Flank Steak with Spicy Sesame Cilantro Noodles
Serves 4 (with possible leftovers)

For the steak:
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons canola oil (plus extra for grilling)
a very generous grind of black pepper
1-1/2 pound flank steak, about 1 inch thick (or flat iron steak)

For the noodles:
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
16 ounces uncooked Chinese noodles (or other ribbon pasta—see Kitchen Notes)
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (see Kitchen Notes)
2/3 cup roughly chopped cilantro leaves (see Kitchen Notes)

Marinate the steak. Combine the first 5 ingredients in a small bowl. Brush the marinade liberally over both sides of the steak and work it into the meat with your fingers. Wrap the steak in plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour, preferably two. About half an hour before you’re ready to grill, remove the steak from the fridge to let it come to room temperature.

Grill the steak. If you’re grilling over charcoal or on a gas grill, you want medium-high heat, so the interior of the steak has a chance to cook before the outsides are burned to a crisp. (A confession here: It was so hot this weekend that I got lazy and used a grilling pan rather than run up and down the stairs to our grill outside. It worked beautifully too.) Gently scrape the marinade from the steak, mainly to remove the garlic—it’s already added its flavor to the meat and will only burn on the grill. Season both sides of the steak generously with salt (you waited until now to avoid drying it out).

When your grill (or grill pan) is hot, oil the grill grate. Grill the steak for about 5 minutes on the first side, then turn it and cook it for another 3 minutes. Do not overcook it—ideally, it should be medium rare, or medium at the most. Transfer steak to a cutting board, tent with foil and allow it to rest for 5 to 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the noodles. Start a big pot of water to boil before grilling the steak; try time the cooking of the noodles so you can finish them while the cooked steak rests (although they can also be served room temperature). Mix the sesame oil and canola oil in a small bowl and set aside. Cook the noodles according to package directions.

A minute or so before they’re done, Heat the oils and crushed red pepper in a large, deep skillet over medium low flame. Drain the noodles (and rinse under hot running water, if using Chinese noodles). Turn off the heat under the oil and add noodles to pan in batches, tossing to coat with oil. Season with salt and sprinkle with sesame seeds and cilantro. Toss to combine.

Plate. Using a sharp knife, slice the steak into thin strips across the grain (see Kitchen Notes). Try for slices between 1/4 and 1/2 inch. Divide noodles among 4 plates and arrange strips of steak on top. Garnish with sprigs of cilantro, if desired. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

Noodles? Pasta? If you can find Chinese noodles in an Asian market, they really do add to the visual interest of the dish and have a slightly different flavor than Western pasta. I used “Chinese Noodles #3″—medium-thick flat noodles made with wheat flour. If you can’t find Chinese noodles, a ribbon pasta such as linguine or fettuccine will also work.

How hot? When using red crushed pepper, let your own heat tolerance be your guide. I used a rounded 1/4 teaspoon and found that it gave a satisfying kick without being overpowering.

Play rough with the cilantro. The recipe says “roughly chopped.” Just chop or tear the larger leaves and don’t overdo it; smaller leaves should be left whole. It adds to the visual appeal of the dish and provides occasional bursts of flavor as you bite into a big piece of cilantro.

Wait. Meat has grain? Any recipe worth its salt will tell you to slice flank steak thin and across the grain. Flank steak comes from a hardworking muscle and can be chewy if you slice it with the grain. Slice it across the grain and it’s tender. Figuring out the grain is no mystery with flank steak. Just look at the raw flank steak in the photo below. The solid line shows the direction of the grain—you can see the fibers of the meat. The dotted line indicates slicing across the grain. Chances are, the steak you buy in the market won’t have these helpful lines on it, so commit them to memory.



{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Jane @ Sweet Basil Kitchen September 1, 2010 at 3:49 am

Yeah for Iowa!! We live in the SE corner. I love the name Honest Cafe…kinda tells the story of Iowa! I have never been there, but what a great review! No tattoo tho?!

Lauren September 1, 2010 at 2:15 pm

This sounds amazing and will be a must try for me!

City Share September 1, 2010 at 3:48 pm

I always love finding fresh, local food on my travels. It is great to discover how other areas are interpreting their local foods in new and different ways. Thanks for the recipe.

kitty September 2, 2010 at 12:32 pm

oh yum. I am salivating now at 830 am. The dish looks divine. I love me my noodle!

btw I should have taken a photo of a meal we had in Tokyo, a long many-coursed Korean bbq experience that included many different cuts of beef, some of it sashimi style. You would have loved it, Terry!

Keep up the wonderful work!

Terry B September 2, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Thanks for stopping by, Jane! And no, tattoos are so not me.

Thanks, Lauren!

City Share—You’re so right. Two ways we judge possible trip destinations are what museums and cool, small restaurants a place has. Okay, and jazz clubs comes next.

That sounds like a wonderful meal indeed, Kitty. And I loved the Tokyo photos you posted!

Laura [What I Like] September 2, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Looks like such a fantastic summer meal! Love the idea of the noodles and the meat together, but I have to admit I have a soft spot for those asian cucumber salads so I may be forced to add one back in when I make this. My mom is such a fan of flank steaks…you brought back childhood memories with that one! I usually stick to hangar and skirt steaks but may have to go back to my roots for a moment this weekend…

Dani H September 14, 2010 at 5:53 am

Another one of your scrumptious, looks good enough to eat photographs! I love cilantro. I think I better try to find the Chinese noodles to have on hand for when the craving for pasta strikes. This sounds delicious. The things I miss from Iowa – corn, tomatoes and beef. Thanks for providing a recipe that sounds doable and looks quite elegant.

Terry B September 14, 2010 at 3:56 pm

I love the cucumber salads too, Laura, but was just focusing on the beef and noodles here. Your mom is a wise woman—flank steak is flavorful and relatively inexpensive.

Thanks, Dani! I’m all about easy but elegant. Wait. That didn’t come out quite right.

Gemma September 19, 2010 at 1:41 am

Wow! What brought you to Mt. Vernon? I lived there for one year. The Lincoln Cafe is a lovely place.

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