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A steaming chicken-fried steak comes sliding down the stainless-steel bartop at Ouisie's Table and comes to rest below my nose. The golden-brown, Southern-fried crust is so perfect that the cream gravy is served on the side. I nibble on the mashed potatoes, the mustard greens and the custardy corn pudding. The undulating curves of battered steak are endlessly alluring, but the free-form fried meat is still too hot to eat. I finger the gravy boat. I want to pour the gravy at just the right instant: Wait too long and the meat is not hot enough anymore, pour too early and you either burn your mouth or sit in frustration while that awesome crust goes soggy.
3939 San Felipe
Houston, TX 77027
Region: Greenway Plaza
Chicken-fried steak dinner: $18.50
Chicken-fried steak lunch: $11
Pilsner Urquel: $4
Shiner Bock: $3.75
While I wait for that moment to arrive, I fume about something I read in the paper. "Only a dupe believes in such a thing as the best chicken-fried steak in Texas," read the subhead of an article written by my fellow food writer, George Alexander ("Deep-Fried Greenhorn," Houston Press, November 30, 2000). George was just poking fun at our Texas food traditions, but I was not amused.
George is a fine fellow -- a world traveler of impeccable taste, an expert on caviars, teas and wild mushrooms, and a writer of great distinction. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don't, and that's fine. This particular piece, however, was insulting to me and everything I hold sacred.
"The phrase 'chicken-fried steak' is, itself, striking and memorable in a Hee Haw kind of way," George opines. But "there is no such thing as a great chicken-fried steak." The tough round steak should be braised, not fried like the tender veal used in Wiener schnitzel, and no good cook would ever use béchamel on beef, he says. "Finally, to make this dish truly hilarious, the contemporary Texan food humorist serves it with a side of mashed potatoes so that there is little contrast in color, flavor and texture between the sauce and side dish, and a minimal contrast with the battered, fried beef," says George. He also questions the historical pretensions of the dish, since the earliest mention of it in print dates back to only 1952.
George, I understand how you could have made this mistake. There are a lot of bad chicken-fried steaks out there, just as there are lots of bad Wiener schnitzels, bad béchamels and bad caviars. But ignorance is no excuse. You shot yourself in the foot on this one, George. And your foot was in your mouth at the time.
I will address each of your contentions in a minute. But first, I need to pour some gravy. I like to start modestly with a couple of tablespoons over a quarter of the battered steak and then quickly cut off a big chunk. That way the batter is still crunchy and each bit is instantly swaddled in the salty warmth of cream gravy and savory meat juice. I close my eyes and savor the moment. Ouisie's Table serves a world-class chicken-fried steak -- without a doubt, one of the best in Texas.
Not that I am an authority. I have been eating chicken-fried steak (or CFS, as it is known in the trade) for only 30 years, and writing about it for ten. I hope someday to become a full-fledged expert, like Bud Kennedy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, who can describe the nuances of every CFS in every small-town cafe within a 100-mile radius of the Fort Worth stockyards. Kennedy learned from a master, the late Jerry Flemmons, also a columnist at the Star-Telegram.
"As splendid and noble as barbecue and Tex-Mex are, both pale before that Great God Beef dish, chicken-fried steak," wrote Flemmons. "No single food better defines the Texas character; it has, in fact, become a kind of nutritive metaphor for the romanticized, prairie-hardened personality of Texans."
Flemmons and his buddy Dan Jenkins hung out at an old Fort Worth roadhouse called Massey's, which is famous for its CFS and ice-cold beer served in frozen cannonball-sized schooners. Jenkins wrote a comic riff about chicken-fried steak in his novel, Baja Oklahoma. Only after years of studying these masters of CFS literature did I dare to try writing about the "Great God Beef dish" myself.
There is a chicken-fried steak recipe in A Cowboy in the Kitchen, the cookbook I co-authored with Fort Worth chef Grady Spears. (Check out the sexy close-up of a CFS dripping with cream gravy on the cover.) Which, of course, brings up the subject of my conflict of interest here. I will admit that the CFS is buttering my bread, and it would not be in my financial interest to bad-mouth it.
So don't take my word for it, George. Take your basic premise, that there is no such thing as a great chicken-fried steak, over to Ouisie's Table. (Call first -- they serve CFS only on Tuesdays or as a daily special.) Here's how to eat it: First you cut off a nice big chunk of steaming meat with plenty of batter, then put some potatoes on top with your knife, and then some mustard greens (properly doused with pepper sauce). Now lower the whole forkful directly into the gravy bowl for a drenching.