Ghost Town CFS: Carriage House Cafe
If you believed all the talk, you'd think that the large chicken-fried steak at Carriage House Cafe on Fallbrook would feed a large family of cougars. It wasn't quite as big as all that. Sure, it overlapped the large oval dinner plate in several places, but I was expecting something closer to the size of a saddle blanket.
My biggest disappointment was that I forgot to ask for the cream gravy on the side, so the expanse of crispy steak was served with a pond of gravy in the middle. I usually like to dip each bite of CFS in the cream gravy rather than allow the gravy to sit there on the crust making it soggy, but this gravy was so tasty, I quickly got over it.
The Carriage House menu listed two choices in the CFS department. The first read, "The Traditional Texas Chicken Fried Steak," which it described as "1/2 lb. of top quality round steak in a crispy seasoned crust & covered in the traditional thick, rich, cream gravy. 'Big enough for almost everybody!'"
The second CFS listing said, "But...if you are one of those few Texans who are a 'little out of the ordinary' and 'whose boots and hat don't fit nobody else!'...we have 'The Big One!' 1 lb. of top quality tenderized round steak—'Ol' Billy Bob's Button Bustin' Chicken Fried Steak."
I don't know what my shoe and hat size have to do with it, but a one-pound CFS sounds fine to me. However, in my three visits to the restaurant, I heard at least five customers recommend against purchasing the "OBBBB CFS."
As we stood in line by the cash register to order lunch on my first visit, a couple of bubbas behind me in the queue warned me not to order one. A guy in a gimme cap said it was embarrassing to be seen with that much food in front of you. The guys in front of me turned around and seconded that opinion. When I countered that I could always get a doggie bag, one guy said, "You'll be eating it for three days."
The menu also boasts a full-pound burger, along with a half-pound burger and a one-pound bun-less hamburger steak smothered with onions. Oddly, no one warned me against ordering the one-pound burgers. The menu brags that the hamburger meat is ground fresh in the kitchen every day and seasoned with a unique blend of herbs.
Since the boys in the line were giving out free dining advice, I asked them what they thought of the burgers. It turned out none of them had ever tried one. They all said they came here to eat chicken-fried steak. When we got to the front of the line, I ordered the big CFS and a half-pound "Fiery Jalapeño Burger." When the food came to the table, my dining companion and I split the burger and the CFS in half so we could try them both.
The fire-burger came with jalapeños ground up in the meat and more pickled jalapeños on top. It was served on a sweet dough bun with lettuce, tomato, cheddar and Swiss.
It was easy to see why the Carriage House Cafe's burger failed to achieve the same notoriety as the CFS. The meat was spicy, but the patty was hard and dry and served on a very bready bun. By applying lots of lubrication in the form of mustard and mayo, you could choke it down, but it wasn't worth the bother. If I had to guess, I'd say the chef was grinding the homemade hamburger too lean. And the one I sampled was definitely overcooked.
The chicken-fried steak, on the other hand, was splendid. The crust had a crunchy quality that my dining companion described as "schnitzel-esque." I asked the waitress if the CFS was made with pounded round steak dipped in flour, then egg wash, then a mixture of flour and bread crumbs, which is the standard recipe for the schnitzel style.
"No it's not dipped in bread crumbs or cornflakes," she said rapidly. She had obviously been through this line of questioning before. She explained that the Carriage House Cafe started with tenderized round steak and then pounded it some more themselves. The crunchy bits were created by drizzling some of the egg wash into the flour mixture so that it formed little balls. The end result was magnificent.
Between the two of us, we finished most of the steak. And since a half-pound CFS cost $7.95 and a one-pound CFS cost $10.95, the impossibly large CFS was actually a much better deal.
"Step back in time to Texas 1845," reads a sign beside the front door of Carriage House Cafe. When you walk into the dimly lit building, it looks like some theme park attraction gone awry.
There are rooms filled with dark wood sideboards, and piles of worn leather harnesses with old cowboy hats tossed everywhere. Hanging on the walls are likenesses of Sam Houston, group photos of guys dressed in Confederate uniforms, and loving portraits of horses.
As you make your way inside, you come to a counter made of antique wooden panels with a cash register. That's where you order your food and take a number. And then you enter a high-ceilinged central dining room with a second-story gallery above.
The low lights and dusty shelves full of junk give the place a haunted-house vibe. In three visits, three different dining companions have compared the look of the place to: a Wild West saloon, a Wild West whorehouse and a hotel in a horror movie. In fact, the building was formerly an antiques store; it is still full of antiques, and they are still for sale. In 2005, owner Alvie Fritsche decided to combine his antiques business with a food-service operation.
It's no accident that his chicken-fried steak is so damn good. Fritsche is also the founder of Hickory Hollow, the restaurant that won the award for "Best Chicken Fried Steak" in the Houston Press's 2005 Best of Houston® issue. The Carriage House Cafe is located near Sam Houston Race Park, a little ways down Fallbrook from the original Hickory Hollow restaurant, which first opened 30 years ago.
Like Hickory Hollow, Carriage House Cafe also serves undistinguished barbecue.
One evening, I tried a mixed plate with sliced brisket and sausage, and I was disappointed. The brisket was exceedingly lean and didn't appear to be freshly sliced. The slices were masked with sweet barbecue sauce. The sausage, which is made on the premises, was dry as dust.
When one of Fritsche's daughters asked me how I liked the barbecue, I offered to pay extra for some meat freshly cut from the fatty deckle end of the brisket.
She smiled knowingly and said, "That's where all the flavor is."
"Yeah, I know," I told her. "But if that's where the flavor is, then why don't you serve it when people order brisket?" I asked her.
She said they usually chopped up the meat from the fatty end and served it in the chopped brisket sandwiches. The plate of fatty end meat she brought me had a couple of hunks of gristle in it, but it was moist, juicy and much more flavorful than the lean, dried-out slices.
I came back on another occasion to sample the chopped brisket sandwich. It was my favorite barbecue item at Carriage House Cafe. The beef was moist and juicy, but unfortunately it was drenched in cloyingly sweet barbecue sauce. There are better places to go for barbecue.
But I can't wait to bring some European tourists to Carriage House Cafe. It's the perfect place to fulfill their dreams of visiting the Wild West. And I'll take them to the horse races after dinner.
You can have a barrel of fun gawking at the Old Western weirdness at Carriage House Cafe and a decent meal, too, if you're careful what you order. Skip the hopelessly dry hamburgers and homemade sausage. If you want barbecued brisket, get the chopped sandwich or ask for the meat to be freshly cut from the fatty end. As everybody knows, "that's where all the flavor is."
The half-pound CFS is sublime. But for a real deal, ignore all the silly warnings and split the one-pound OBBBB CFS with somebody — it's the perfect chicken-fried steak for two.
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