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.
"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 American on 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.
"Palo Pinto County's main industries are cream gravy and methamphetamines," says Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy, who joined us at Mary's for lunch. "This used to be the only place within 50 miles where a student at Tarleton State University could get a beer," Kennedy says. But then some other towns near the college went wet.
One of the Tarleton State students was the late Fort Worth Star-Telegram travel editor Jerry Flemmons, who wrote the first chicken-fried steak rankings in Fort Worth in 1976. Flemmons used to say that there were three major food groups in Texas barbecue, Tex-Mex and chicken-fried steak. But he was prejudiced in favor of the CFS.
"As splendid and noble as barbecue and Tex-Mex are, both pale before the Great God Beef dish, chicken-fried steak," Flemmons once wrote. "No single food better defines the Texas character; it has, in fact, become a kind of nutritive metaphor for the romanticized, prairie-hardened personality of Texas."
The panfried chicken-fried steak of West Texas was the "prairie-hardened" variety that Flemmons was talking about. Bud Kennedy comes from the same tradition. "My mom just dipped them in flour and panfried them," said Kennedy, who grew up in Fort Worth. And that's what most West Texans think of when you start talking about chicken-fried steak.
West Texans consider the heavily battered and deep-fried Southern style, with its undulations and flakes, to be indulgent, overwrought and sinfully rich. They don't care if we eat them over our way, but when East Texans start impugning the simple, flour-dipped West Texas version of chuck wagon fame, those are fighting words.
The view from Strawn is that there's something suspicious about East Texans ranking chicken-fried steaks to begin with. After all, CFS journalism has always been dominated by writers from Fort Worth.
The gravy-sodden chicken-fried steak was already out-of-date when Julia Child and JFK's White House chef made French food chic in the early 1960s. But it made a comeback in the 1970s. "I take full credit for reinventing the chicken-fried steak," Dan Jenkins told me on the phone from his home in Fort Worth.
Jenkins, who has enjoyed a long career as one of America's favorite sports writers, published a novel about pro football called Semi-Tough in 1972. In it, a former TCU football star named Billy Clyde Puckett is horrified to discover that he can't get a chicken-fried steak in New York City after being drafted by the Giants.
"Semi-Tough was a best-seller, and it reintroduced the chicken-fried steak," said Jenkins. "I was living in New York at the time, and none of my friends up there knew what it was." But back in Jenkins's hometown of Fort Worth, the book set off a chicken-fried frenzy.
Texas Monthly magazine was founded in 1973. In May 1974, the magazine published "The Best Little Old Chicken-Fried Steak in Texas," the first of the CFS rankings. Early statewide rankings always paid tribute to Massey's Restaurant on 8th Avenue in Fort Worth. The restaurant, which was immortalized in print by Dan Jenkins, was owned by Herb Massey. It appears under the pseudonym of Herb's Café in his books.
"The reason it was so good was that it was a little cube steak tenderized all to hell, served on toast with cream gravy over the top," Jenkins said. "We got the bright idea of putting it on biscuits instead of toast, and that tasted pretty good too."
After Herb Massey passed away, the restaurant was taken over by new management. Massey's stayed the same, but the chicken-fried steak moved uptown. Upscale cowboy restaurants like Reata took over from aging cafes as Fort Worth's favorite places for the dish.
I asked Jenkins what makes a great chicken-fried steak. "It has to have the living shit tenderized out of it," he said. "You should be able to cut it with a fork."
He doesn't have any problem with the newfangled chicken-fried steaks made with premium cuts of beef. "Twenty years ago, I used to eat at a place called Rudy's in Houston. Jackie Burke and all the golfers used to hang out there. Rudy used to make a CFS with chateaubriand," he said. "It was damn good."
The chicken-fried steak at the Frisco Shop on Burnet Road in Austin had a bland-tasting crust. The meat was over-tenderized. The mashed potatoes still held the shape of the ice cream scoop. "Soft and bland, that's the way this crowd likes it," joked my booth mate, Alan Lazarus, one of Austin's top chefs. When we walked in at dinnertime on Saturday night, he predicted we would be the youngest people in the restaurant, and he was right by a long shot.
We had joined the senior-citizen set for dinner at the Frisco Shop to sample the last of the Night Hawk's chicken-fried steaks, and to bid a sentimental goodbye. Walgreens has purchased the lot, and the 55-year-old Frisco Shop is scheduled for demolition sometime next year. It is the last location of the Night Hawk chain, once the most prestigious in Austin.
I told Lazarus I had eaten chicken-fried steak for lunch at R.O.'s Outpost in Spicewood, the place that won the Austin Chronicle's "Best Chicken-Fried Steak" award in 2003 and 2004. I asked him if he knew which restaurant had won in 2005 and 2006. "I don't think it's even a category any more," he said.
Then we began the familiar litany of dearly departed Austin chicken-fried steak restaurants. The Stallion, Hank's on the Drag, Virginia's on South Lamar, the list went on and on. "When we were in college, we used to live on chicken-fried steaks," Lazarus said. "But college kids don't eat that kind of food anymore. Chicken-fried steak is outdated. It's not healthy, and it's not what people want to eat."
"Well not in Austin, anyway," I chided.
Back in Houston a few days later, I dug into a chicken-fried steak lunch special at Lankford Grocery. It was a petite patty that looked like a slightly flattened piece of Southern fried chicken. The crust was heavenly. It was crispy and chewy at the same time, with plenty of salt and pepper and maybe a dash of cayenne in the batter. I admired the light sheen of the fryer grease and the way the crust pulled away from the meat while I ate it. I could have sworn there was some chicken skin under there.
While I sat there taking in the scene, I thought about how much the falling-down building and eccentric decorating scheme at Lankford Grocery reminded me of Virginia's, which used to be my favorite chicken-fried steak joint when I was a college student in Austin. They don't make these kind of restaurants anymore.
Lankford Grocery is an old-fashioned country restaurant in a part of town where old buildings are getting leveled to make way for brand-new townhouses. It won't be around much longer. And there aren't a lot of new restaurants opening in Houston with chicken-fried steaks on the menu.
I am afraid Alan Lazarus is right, the chicken-fried steak is in decline at least in urban Texas.
From the Black-eyed Pea to Kelly's Country Cooking, most restaurants that serve chicken-fried steak in Houston are trying to conjure up the memory of our rural past. Houstonians think of chicken-fried steak as "old-fashioned" food, along with biscuits and gravy and other such throwbacks.
But out in the country, where chicken-fried steak is still king, innovative cooks in small-town Texas restaurants are creating some delectable new versions of the old classic.
At Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap, just outside of Abilene, Tom Perini makes his chicken-fried steak once a week for Sunday brunch. He uses ribeye steak trim. The pieces of ribeye are dipped in Southern-style egg batter, pounded out into medallions and served with cream gravy on the side.
At the Beehive in Albany, Amanda Pearson, a former Navy cook, tenderizes top butt sirloin and dips it in a blend of flour and bread crumbs. Her awesome chicken-fried steak tastes like a cross between a German schnitzel and a West Texas panfried steak. Pearson beats the flour into the steak with such force that the crust appears to be welded to the meat.
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On the Saturday night when I stopped by the Cliff House Restaurant in Stamford, they were serving panfried steaks with the inspired topping of sautéed green peppers and onions. It tasted like an Italian-style CFS or would that be a Milanese CFS?
Grading all of these variations gets awfully complicated. But if Scott from Dallasfood.org really wants to calibrate his rankings, he needs to go visit a whole lot of country cafes. Meanwhile, the panfried dogmatists in Fort Worth are going to have to deal with the fact that, given the choice, most people opt for the rich flavor of a Southern-style CFS over the more austere West Texas version.
But personally, I love them all.
Read more at "I Love CFS: 25 Lovable Chicken-Fried Steaks".