Food Fight: Battle Chicken Fried Steak
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
A contentious battle if there ever was one... Chicken fried steak (or CFS, for short) is up there in the great pantheon of Texas foods alongside cheese enchiladas, brisket and chili. But just because a food is inherently Texan doesn't mean you can always find it done well in Houston, and vice versa: Some of the best Mexican food in the world is found right here in the Bayou City. Steve Earle said it best in a recent interview with John Lomax: "Houston was always tough for chicken-frieds."
The last fucking place you can get a decent chicken fried steak is right over there. There's one little pocket there: Schulenburg, Flatonia and La Grange. That's the last place in Texas you can get a decent chicken-fried-steak. There's nowhere in Austin anymore...Maybe you can at a couple of the steakhouses in the Panhandle, but you have to go to a real steakhouse and they will have a chicken-fried round on the menu. But it's easier to get a good chicken-fried in Oklahoma than it is in Texas nowadays.
Could the hardcore troubador be right? We put two of the best local chicken fried steaks to the test and the results...were troubling.
Triple A Restaurant
This plain little restaurant on Airline Drive almost completely blends into its surroundings, a combination of its age (it's been in its current location since 1942) and its brown-upon-tan-upon-taupe color scheme, which mimics long-closed dentist's offices and strip malls and which -- at first glance, if you could spot it immediately -- often looks closed itself.
Inside, however, Triple A is always intoxicatingly alive with the kind of earthiness and down-home comfort that you're hard-pressed to find in any other restaurant inside the Loop. The folks eating at the low-slung diner counter are the long-time Heights residents you don't often see among the hideous stucco townhomes and trite wannabe Austin hangouts like Cedar Creek. They're the truck drivers who bring produce to Canino's and the farmers market next door. They're grandmothers and grandfathers, who've met at the same table every morning with their friends over coffee for years.
The chicken fried steak at Triple A very nearly lives up to its surroundings, too. The incredibly thick cream gravy seems to be made entirely of drippings, flour and black pepper, and a lesser person could easily eat it on its own with a spoon. The steak within the crispy exterior is nearly tender enough to cut with a fork. But minus the excellent gravy, the CFS is bland and mediocre. A few more pinches of salt, perhaps some paprika or pepper, and it would be back on track. On its own, however, it's as faded as the linoleum floors underneath the time-worn tables.
Bonus points: Sassy waitresses, excellently cheesy broccoli and rice casserole.
Although it's also revered as a Heights institution, Hickory Hollow doesn't have quite the hint of antiquity associated with it as Triple A, nor do its patrons have quite the same depth of character. Nevertheless, it's as down-home as they come (and certainly as down-home as you can get so close to the obnoxiously trendy Washington Avenue corridor).
Inside, the menu anachronistically advises ladies to order a smaller size of the massive CFS for their supposedly dainty appetites. Despite the fact that it's actually smaller, I refuse to order anything specifically and insultingly geared toward women and end up with the Ploughman's CFS ("perfect for lunch!", the menu touts). Hickory Hollow has, of late, dispensed with the microphone used for calling out orders and has instead added newfangled discs that light up and buzz when your order is ready. It's disappointing.
Any disappointment is mitigated when the CFS is ready. The mashed potatoes on the side are pleasantly lumpy and drenched in the same cream gravy that covers the CFS. Unfortunately, the gravy is an unpalatable-looking yellow color and -- once in the mouth -- just goes further downhill. It's a bland, tasteless mess, and the entire plate is better without it. Scraping off the gravy, though, is a revelation: This CFS is more than good enough to stand on its own. The meat is tender but toothsome; the crust is crispy without shattering, and perfectly seasoned. I do the unthinkable: I eat the chicken fried steak entirely on its own, without any gravy at all.
Bonus points: Blueberry pie, all-you-can-eat "salad bar."
If possible, I would buy a container of Triple A's heavenly cream gravy (which tastes almost exactly like the gravy my sainted Meemo used to make) and drench Hickory Hollow's chicken fried steak in it. And then I would request to be left alone with this masterpiece for at least an hour.
But since that's not possible, Hickory Hollow wins by default for having a CFS that is delicious despite the horrid "gravy" on top. And it looks like Steve Earle wins, too, unless there are any braver contenders out there waiting to prove him wrong.
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