"Chicken-fried steak is considered a Southern staple," according to the Tulsa World. Food historians who argue that the CFS is a Southern invention point to the fried-chicken connection and the fact that recipes for steaks dipped in batter can be found in Southern cookbooks going back to the early 1800s.
Aficionados of this style wax poetic about the crunchy crust. It should look just like the coating on a piece of Southern fried chicken. Here's some of the best examples across the state.
2934 Main St.
Looking at the concert posters and other memorabilia on the walls, you'd swear you were in Austin. The CFS is a thin piece of top-quality tenderloin covered with a sheer, flaky crust. You can cut it with a fork. The mashed potatoes and other sides are artfully prepared. It's upscale restaurant food slumming in a Deep Ellum diner.
Babe's Chicken Dinner House
104 North Oak
There are only two things on Babe's menu some of the best fried chicken in the state and a terrific chicken-fried steak. And no matter which one you pick, the crust looks exactly the same. There are several D-FW locations, but the original is located in an old warehouse in the small town of Roanoke, half an hour north of Fort Worth. "Babe" is the owner's nickname.
3116 Bissonnet St.
A Western-themed restaurant in the wilds of West U the interior features a mounted buffalo head. The tenderized steak in the CFS is covered in a wavy crust fried golden blond with a perfectly crispy texture. The cream gravy is average, but the mashed potatoes have that perfect balance of creaminess and lumpiness you get when you whip them fresh.
27931 Tomball Pkwy.
The inside of this enormous super-diner is dark and cool. The menu advertises the "Best CFS in Texas." If you like them when they look like chicken, you'll love this one. The crust on the steak is so thick and crunchy, big flakes of it fall off when you cut it. Tasty brownish gravy is served on the side. The large order overlaps the plate in all directions.
Humble City Café
200 E. Main
A historic high-ceilinged stone building in downtown Humble brought back to life as a small-town cafe. The CFS is a tenderized steak beautifully battered and fried, but a tad gristly. Hand-cut French fries and country-style green beans are the top sides.
Lankford Grocery and Market
88 Dennis St.
A funky country cafe in an inner-city neighborhood, Lankford Grocery is a Houston civic treasure. The CFS is served as a Thursday lunch special only. The patties of tenderized eye-of-round are small but thick and come to the table in a well-seasoned and thickly battered crust. A baked potato garnished with sour cream, cheddar and green onions is served on the side.
116 W. Crosstimbers St.
"Barbecue Inn has one of the best chicken-fried steaks I have ever eaten," says John T. Edge, the head of the Southern Foodways Alliance. The meat is extremely tender, and the crust is exceptional just what you'd expect at a place famous for its fried chicken. The bright-white cream gravy is a little sweet; it tastes like it was made with evaporated milk. Skip the greasy fries and load up a baked potato with sour cream, cheddar, chives and bacon bits from the old-fashioned rotating stainless-steel carousel.
Ozona Grill & Bar
4615 Greenville Ave.
520 Harvey Rd.
The patio at the Ozona location on Greenville is one of Dallas's most charming happy hour spots, when the weather cooperates. The CFS is huge and pocked with deep chicken-fried craters. Unfortunately, the crust sometimes slips off the meat completely. The creamy garlic mashed potatoes make up for other defects.
(The Ponder Steakhouse)
110 W. Bailey
Opened in 1948, this legendary Texas steak house is from the old school. The walls are covered with signed photographs of NASCAR stars. They tenderize their own round steak on the premises and dip it in egg batter for an extra-crunchy crust. The large is only slightly smaller than a manhole cover. This stellar CFS comes on a sizzling metal platter with crispy hand-cut French fries on the side.
W. Hwy 71 at Hazy Hills Dr.
At this eccentric Hill Country cafe, you have your choice of a claustrophobic dining room or an expansive porch that lacks heat or air-conditioning. The CFS comes with a gorgeous crispy crust, but the meat could use a little more tenderizing. Garnishes include pickles, onions and a canned peach. The gravy is great, the sides average.
After eating one of these "chicken-fried schnitzels," it's easy to see why Gourmet columnists Jane and Michael Stern speculated in Eat Your Way Across the U.S.A. that "the chicken-fried steak was a Depression-era invention of Hill Country German-Texans."
A 1994 Dallas Morning News article called "Plate Teutonics" took the same view. "German immigrants brought the breaded and fried cutlet to the Texas frontier, where it was quickly copied with less finesse by chuck-wagon cooks and farm wives..." The author goes on to say that even "the gravy ladled on top has Teutonic roots: Rahmschnitzel is garnished with cream sauce."
These are dipped in bread crumbs or cracker meal so the breading lies flat on the meat, giving it a texture like a German schnitzel.
Country Inn Steak House
111 Ave. B
"Size does matter," is the slogan of the Country Inn in Somerville. When you order a large chicken-fried steak at this ramshackle old roadhouse, you actually get two of them. The thin, tenderized round steaks are dunked in a commercial "pre-dip" solution that contains a lot of vegetable starches, and then they're dipped in a flour-and-bread crumb mixture and fried. The result is an astonishingly crunchy, flat coating that puts your average wiener schnitzel to shame. Don't miss the mountain of peppery onion rings, served with a bowl of ranch dressing.
Heitmiller Family Steakhouse
203 N. Connally Dr.
At this fabulous old steakhouse north of Waco, the shades are drawn against the sun so the dining room is dark at noon when the locals eat dinner. The CFS is made with a tenderized sirloin dipped in flour, then buttermilk, and finally a cracker meal breading seasoned with salt and pepper. After it's fried, this crust gets so crunchy, you need to grind it with your molars like a mouthful of granola.
2002 Manor Rd.
Hoover's is one of the few places left in Austin where you can eat black Southern cooking. But oddly, the CFS walks a fine line between the Southern and German styles. The crust is thick, but the crispy texture of bread crumbs predominates. Call it a German-style chicken-fried schnitzel with unabashedly Southern sides. Don't miss the sweet potato pie.
"Chicken-fried steak probably originated on the range," writes Dotty Griffith in the 1986 book Restaurants of Dallas. "It is hypothesized that cowboys on trail drives would fry pieces of meat from a slaughtered steer in grease-filled skillets over an open fire. This proved a very quick and easy way to cook meat, perfect for men on the move eating out of a chuck wagon."
For years I dismissed the cowboy CFS genesis story as a tall tale. If the point was cooking a steak "quick and easy," then why wouldn't cowboy cooks grill their steaks directly over the coals instead of messing with frying pans and grease and flour?
I was set straight by Tom Perini, a cowboy cooking historian and owner of Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap. He explained that dried buffalo manure, a.k.a. "buffalo chips," was the only fuel to be found on the earliest trail drives. There were no trees on the prairie.
Mesquite didn't appear in West Texas until the range was fenced and the herds of buffalo and frequent prairie fires no longer kept the brush in check. Imagine what a steak cooked over buffalo dung would taste like, Perini said. Suddenly the idea of cowboys chicken-frying their steaks made a lot more sense.
Here's some outstanding examples of West Texas cowboy-style chicken-fried steaks.
Fort Griffin General Merchandise Restaurant
Hwy 80 W.
The Fort Griffin Fandangle and the CFS at the Beehive are Albany's main claims to fame. The CFS has gotten so famous, they've opened a new location of the Beehive in downtown Abilene. Their distinctive chicken-fried starts with top-quality tenderized top butt sirloin. After it's dipped in a seasoned flour-and-breadcrumb mixture, the breading is literally pounded into the meat before it's fried. You get a crispy bread crumb crust that you couldn't separate from the sirloin with a crowbar.
Cliff House Restaurant
1611 N. Swenson St.
The Cliff House is located in what was once a mid-century modern motel, and it still has the trapezoid-shaped windows to prove it. Gourmands will want to visit on a Wednesday night during the CFS special, when they serve one the size of a welcome mat. The simple flour-dipped pan-fried steak is sometimes served with sautéed onions and peppers for a refreshing change of pace.
Finish Line Café
600 Main St.
Don't order the chicken-fried steak at the Finish Line it's a previously frozen patty. Get the pan-fried steak, which is what they call a hand-breaded CFS in Paradise. Rayanne dips hers in flour and milk, while her mom, Marie, adds a beaten egg for an extra-tender crust. Ask for the "home fries" if you want hand-cut French fries.
119 Grant Ave.
If you are serious about CFS, you must make the pilgrimage to Strawn, a town with a population of less than 800 and two of the most beloved CFS restaurants in the state. Mary's Café has been called the "mother church" of the pan-fried steak. But other CFS fans swear by Flossie's across the street. The town with two CFS cafes has become a favorite destination of weekend motorcyclists.
1805 Eighth Ave.
Herb Massey is gone, but the new owners have tried to keep everything the same. The little chicken-fried steak patties are served on toast with cream gravy poured over top. The beer comes in those bowling ball-sized schooners that are so popular in North Texas.
The chicken-fried steak was created to turn tough, inexpensive cuts of beef into something people actually wanted to eat. In the early days, the steak was pounded with a meat mallet, the side of a plate, or a bottle until it was "tenderized." Modern butchers run the meat through a tenderizing machine that tears the fiber and tendons up with lots of tiny needles.
But the upscale restaurants that dominate the chicken-fried steak rankings in newspapers and magazines use sirloin, ribeye and tenderloin steaks. Obviously, tenderized sirloin tastes a lot better than a tenderized round steak. But some CFS purists argue that this is an unfair comparison, as well as a waste of good meat. Chicken-frying a ribeye is like making chili out of prime rib, they protest.
Better try an extra-fancy CFS at one of these places and make up your own mind.
3939 San Felipe St.
When Ousie's used to serve their chicken-fried steak on Tuesday nights only, it was transcendental. Since they moved it to the regular menu, The CFS has fallen a tad in quality. The formerly flawless crust is now a little greasy and slipping off the steak. You might be better off with their venison chicken-fried steak, which is made in the German schnitzel style with a bread crumb coating and lots of rich brown gravy. It's a CFS that you might want to wash down with a glass of Burgundy.
Rio Ranch Restaurant
9999 Westheimer Rd.
Rio Ranch, which was opened by Robert Del Grande in 1993, is one of the earliest outposts of the "cowboy cuisine" cooking style. The chicken-fried steak here is actually two layers of paper-thin sirloin steak dipped in buttermilk, hand-dredged in seasoned flour and fried crispy. It's served over top of a large pile of steaming mashed potatoes with black pepper-speckled cream gravy on the side.
310 Houston St.
Reata started out as a rough-hewn cowboy-cuisine restaurant in a little house in Alpine. They now have a huge, elegant restaurant in the center of downtown Fort Worth. The secret of Reata's CFS is a touch of sourdough starter in the batter. The CFS is served with cream gravy studded with big pieces of cracked peppercorns that really light up your mouth when you bite into them.
Perini Ranch Steakhouse
3002 FM 89
The Perini Ranch Steakhouse is owned by Tom Perini, one of the nation's leading experts on chuck wagons and cowboy cooking. Perini points out that cowboys on the range ate beans and biscuits, not chicken-fried steak. Since there's no reason to worry about authenticity, he uses the pieces of ribeye that are left over from cutting his steaks for his CFS. It's only served on Sunday for brunch. And it's some of the best-tasting meat you'll find in a CFS.
BIG HONKING-STYLE CFS
For some folks, the allure of the CFS is how much meat you get. Restaurants have capitalized on this tendency toward gluttony by offering ever-larger sizes. Here's three of the biggest.
Kelley's Country Cookin'
8015 Park Place Blvd. (and five other locations)
Founded by a former motorcycle cop, this is one of the best breakfast restaurants in Houston. The Grand Slam Breakfast comes with a Frisbee-sized CFS, fried crisp and brown with lots of crunchy bits. Not only is the crust perfect, the meat inside is juicy. It's served with a biscuit, three eggs, hash browns and yellow chicken-flavored gravy.
Hickory Hollow Restaurant
101 Heights Blvd. (and two other locations)
A rustic theme is suggested by the reclining hillbilly and the letters that face backwards on the top of the menu. The chicken-fried steaks are so big, they come on pizza pans instead of plates. The sides are forgettable, but if you think bigger is better, you'll be happy here.
T-Bone Tom's Steak House Restaurant
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707 Hwy 146
This old Kemah meat market is a great place for barbecue, hamburgers and CFS. When you order a large chicken-fried here, you get two patties. They aren't excessively big around, but they are by far the thickest chicken-fried steaks you will ever see with the crust, they have to be an inch tall. Because of the thickness, the tenderized steak stays very juicy. The green beans are fabulous, and the square steak fries are good, too. But ask for the gravy on the side. It's bland, and they tend to pour it all over the plate. ª