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The crust on Granny's chicken-fried steak was so thick, it looked like the meat was coated with cornflakes. The varying shades of gold and brown were accented here and there with flecks of black pepper. You could cut the tenderized round steak with a fork, but it was still chewy. There was a nice crunch to every bite. It was served with a side of "home fries," hand-cut french fries with bits of peel still attached. I got the cream gravy on the side. It was the fourth chicken-fried steak I ordered at the Finish Line Café in Paradise that afternoon.
In Houston, Dallas and Austin, sushi is exceedingly popular; chicken-fried steak, not so much. Meanwhile, in small-town Texas, where hamachi hand rolls are scarce to nonexistent, the chicken-fried steak is doing better than ever.
I had originally set out with the intention of ranking and rating the best chicken-fried steaks in the state, but I ate so many chicken-fried steaks in small-town cafes and loved them all that I soon realized the absurdity of the task. That's when I came up with the Chicken-Fried Steak Belt theory.
My hypothesis was that there's a Chicken-Fried Steak Belt in Texas. Where the belt begins and ends is unclear, but it probably includes most of Texas north of San Antonio. And within this belt, every small-town cafe serves a CFS that rates somewhere between very good and excellent. To put the theory to the test, yesterday I got out a road atlas and looked for a hamlet I had never visited on my next day's route between Denton and Abilene.
Paradise, Texas, had sounded like a nice place, so my daughter and I had driven here and looked around for a place to eat. The newly opened Paradise Café was serving fried catfish instead of CFS on this Friday afternoon. Then we discovered a funky metal building in a gravel parking lot that called itself the Finish Line Cafe. It's the oldest cafe in Paradise, and as far as I know, no food journalist has ever written about it. They had a chicken-fried steak and a panfried steak on the menu. We ordered both.
Made from a frozen patty, the chicken-fried steak was pretty awful. The waitress told me they bought the frozen patties for their chicken-fried steak sandwich. The panfried steak, on the other hand, was an excellent hand-breaded tenderized round steak with a nice crunchy crust.
The panfried's tenderized steak was first dipped in seasoned flour, then buttermilk, then dipped a second time in seasoned flour and fried in a deep fryer. The finished product was served with previously frozen fries and cream gravy.
I asked the waitress why they called it a panfried steak. She responded that that was just what they called a hand-breaded chicken-fried steak in Paradise.
I wanted my daughter, who is a photojournalism major at the University of North Texas, to take a picture of it, but I had neglected to order the cream gravy on the side. So I ordered another panfried steak for photography purposes. It was so good, we ate most of it.
By now, most of the lunch crowd had cleared out and our waitress came over to see what we were up to. When I told her we were driving around Texas comparing chicken-fried steaks, she said that we ought to try her Granny's. Our waitress, Jenny Herrington, was the daughter of the Finish Line's owner and head cook, Rayanne Gentry. Rayanne's mother and Jenny's grandmother, Marie Brown, was also working in the kitchen.
"When I'm going to eat a chicken-fried steak, I have Granny make it," the third-generation CFS fan whispered. "And I get it with the home fries." Granny adds beaten egg to the buttermilk for a richer batter, Herrington told us. And she cuts the potatoes to order. With a recommendation like that, we sat down and ordered a fourth chicken-fried steak. If you like the Southern fried version of the CFS, Granny's was the best one of the bunch.
"That's the last one we're going to make you," Rayanne Gentry yelled from the cash register. "Four chicken-fried steaks ought to be enough for anybody."
The chicken-fried steak at Ozona Grill & Bar on Greenville Avenue in Dallas was even crustier than Granny's. But while all the Paradise steaks were made with tenderized round steak, the Ozona Grill & Bar used tenderized top butt, a sirloin cut. It was very tasty in fact, it would have been world-class, except that the crust came loose after a couple of bites. I was forced to try and assemble pieces of meat and batter on my fork in order to consider how they tasted together. It was kind of a mess. The same thing happened to my tablemate's CFS.
Scott, the young man who runs the Web site called dallasfood.org, was chagrined. He had just ranked the Ozona Grill & Bar one of the best chicken-fried steaks in Dallas using his extensive rating system. And he found the ones we were eating unacceptable. These things happen, I said. It was a Thursday night at happy hour, and the restaurant was packed.