By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
Not enough contrast? What I get is a montage of texture and flavor, the vinegary pepper sauce on the bitter mustard-flavored greens burning through the mashed potato and creamy gravy and mixing boldly with the meat juices. This perfect bite is properly washed down with a swallow of cold beer. (Go ahead and get the Pilsner Urquel if Shiner Bock isn't good enough for you.) If you still can't tell the meat from the potatoes after a bite like this, then maybe its time to take your palate in for a checkup.
The meat is a little tough, you complain. Duh, George. What did you expect? Tough beef has been the main indigenous ingredient in Texas regional cooking for quite some time now. Which is why we also invented the hamburger, chili con carne and barbecued brisket here. That's also why we tenderize the steaks before we batter and fry them.
But just for the sake of argument, let's consider your contention. "Frying, especially batter-frying in a pan, is for tender meats. Think Wiener schnitzel," you say. In James Beard's American Cookery, the recipe for Wiener schnitzel calls for a veal cutlet. "In our terminology, the cutlet is cut from the leg and has the round bone still in," says Beard. This one-half to one-inch-thick round steak is then pounded with a meat mallet to the thickness of a quarter-inch or even thinner and then breaded and fried in deep fat. Sound familiar?
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
After you beat it with a hammer for a while, what's the difference between veal and beef round? Surely tenderness is not the issue. Veal tastes milder because it comes from milk-fed calves. But there wasn't any milk-fed veal available in Texas years ago. So they made the same dish with a similar cut of beef. Chicken-fried steak is essentially a Texas variation on the breaded veal cutlet, an American dish that James Beard tells us was patterned after Austrian Wiener schnitzel and Italian veal Milanese and has been popular in the United States for 150 years.
Which brings us to the topic of history. "Most Texans probably first heard about the dish when they went to see the 1971 movie The Last Picture Show," says George. Wait a minute, let me get this straight. He thinks Bubba started eating chicken-fried steak because of an arty black-and-white film by Peter Bogdanovich? Now that's what I call "truly hilarious"!
According to the Lone Star Book of Records, the CFS was invented in 1911 by Jimmy Don Perkins, a cook in a small cafe in Lamesa, Texas, who misunderstood a customer's order and battered a thin steak and deep-fried it in hot oil. Unfortunately this oft-reported food fact is a complete fable. Nobody is really sure when the CFS was invented, but it was long before 1952. In the Best Read Guide to San Antonio, Carol B. Sowa reports that the Pig Stand Drive-in locations in San Antonio started serving chicken-fried steak sandwiches when they opened in the 1940s. Gourmet columnists Jane and Michael Stern speculate in Eat Your Way Across the U.S.A. that the chicken-fried steak was a Depression-era invention of Hill Country German-Texans. My own guess is that the dish existed as beefsteak Wiener schnitzel long before the catchy Southern name was coined.
Finally we come to the cream gravy problem. "It is also known to all professional cooks that you would never, ever use béchamel sauce on beef," says George. In speaking for all professional cooks, George truly puts his foot in his mouth. Elouise Cooper and Robert Del Grande, two of Houston's best chefs, serve chicken-fried steaks with cream gravy. So what is George trying to tell us? That Cooper and Del Grande aren't professional cooks?
At Del Grande's Rio Ranch [9999 Westheimer, (713)952-5000] the chicken-fried is a sirloin dipped in buttermilk batter and served with cream gravy. Rio Ranch helped invent the upscale cowboy cuisine that has taken the common chicken-fried to new heights in Texas. Over the last ten years, chicken-fried venison steaks, chicken-fried rib eyes and chicken-fried tuna steaks (all in cream gravy) have been featured in high-class restaurants across the state. No doubt George will discover these innovations someday soon and report back to us breathlessly about them.
We can forgive George his miscues; he has just moved back to Texas after a long absence. But the real problem here isn't the lack of local knowledge, it's the haughty attitude. Telling Houstonians that there is no such thing as a great chicken-fried steak is like telling Philadelphians that there is no such thing as a great cheese steak, or New Yorkers that there is no such thing as a great pizza. It's not just a snobby opinion, it's a civic slur.