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"At least you had one good chicken-fried steak in Dallas," he said. At Scott's other top-ranked CFS joint in Dallas, the AllGood Cafe in the Deep Ellum district, we ate a truly exceptional CFS. It was made from a tender, juicy, thin-cut tenderloin steak covered with a veil of crust so sheer that a little of the meat showed through it. The gravy was served separately, and the mashed potatoes were terrific.
On his Web site, Scott assigned letter grades to each of the chicken-fried steaks he rated. While he concentrated on Dallas, he made several "calibration" trips to other urban areas to keep his grades in perspective. I asked Scott to rank his top five chicken-fried steaks in the state.
His number one was Ouisie's Table in Houston. It got an A- in his rankings, the only A in the entire state. At number two, three and four there was a three-way tie between Ozona, AllGood and Babe's, each of which got a B+. "After that, there were a whole lot of Bs," he said.
Scott wrote that he visited Ouisie's because of an article I wrote in the Press that called the Southern-fried tenderized sirloin there a world-class CFS, among the best in the state ["Chicken-Fried Honor," January 11, 2001].
But others whose opinions I respect have questioned Scott's criteria and methodology. "He's all about the batter," one West Texas CFS wag scoffed. And unfortunately, Scott seemed to skip the small-town cafes of the Chicken-Fried Steak Belt completely. No wonder he gave out so many low grades.
With sympathies in both camps, I figured it was my duty to weigh in (as it were) on this debate. So I decided to visit Scott and sample his top picks and then try some of the chicken-fried steaks that other experts recommended.
My goal was to come up with a guide to the state's most popular CFS restaurants and the varying styles they represent. But as the experiment in Paradise proved, there are so many undiscovered small-town cafes serving excellent chicken-fried steaks in the state of Texas that ranking them all is impossible (unless you have a couple of years to spare).
According to one Web site, the Texas Restaurant Association did a survey that revealed 80 percent of its members served CFS and that there were some 800,000 of them a day being consumed in Texas. But Wendy Saari, director of communications at the Texas Restaurant Association, says those figures aren't correct.
"I am afraid that's an urban legend," she reports.
In the late 1980s, the TRA did conduct a member survey that included a market segmentation study, she said. While everyone remembers that a surprisingly large number of the respondents served chicken-fried steak, nobody at the TRA can quote any statistics because they can't find the original study. Besides, the number of restaurants replying was only a tiny fraction of all the state's restaurants, so the numbers wouldn't mean much anyway. "It's safe to say that chicken-fried steak is really popular," Saari says.
Another myth holds that CFS is a recent addition to the American menu. The food history Web site Foodtimeline.org reports, "The ‘chicken-fried' moniker seems to be a mid-20th-century invention. The earliest printed recipe we have for chicken-fried steak was published in 1949."
But a search of the digitized records of newspaperarchives.com shows that on June 19, 1914, an ad appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette offering "A Summer Dainty Chicken Fried Steak Served at Phelps 111 E. Bijou."
The earliest Texas CFS ad in the archives appeared in the Austin Americanon March 2, 1933. It read, "Chicken Fried Steak with French fried potatoes and hot rolls 25¢ Federal Café 811 Congress. 2 p.m. to 8:45 p.m."
So the chicken-fried steak is a lot older than food historians have thought it was. Where did it originate? There are several origin stories Southern fried chicken, German Schnitzel and floured cowboy steaks have all been cited as the inspiration of the early chicken-fried steaks [see "I Love CFS: 25 Lovable Chicken-Fried Steaks"]. Which genesis story you believe probably depends on where you grew up and how your momma cooked them.
The chicken-fried steak at Mary's Café in Strawn has a dense, flat flour coating that is darker in some places than others. It lacks the crispness of the bread crumbs found in the German-inspired "chicken-fried schnitzels" of Central Texas. It doesn't have the richly battered Southern-style crust like the ones served in East Texas, either. This is the West Texas "panfried" version of the chicken-fried steak, and Mary's Café in Strawn is the mother church of the style.
Cowboys didn't have toasted bread crumbs to cook with. They didn't have eggs to enrich the batter with, either. Which is why the West Texas panfried steak is the simplest of Texas CFS styles. The coating is dry, which also makes the flavor of this kind of CFS more dependent on the gravy. Thank goodness Mary's gravy is peppery and rich.
The dining room where I am sitting is lit by the blue neon of a giant beer sign. In fact, beer signs make up most of the interior decoration in this ramshackle little roadhouse. Many of the other customers are middle-aged Harley drivers. There is another cafe across the street called Flossie's that is also famous for its CFS. In fact, the whole area is famous for chicken-fried steaks.