Chicken Fried Steak With a Side of Kiss My Grits

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When I suggested to a friend and fellow food blogger (Food in Houston) that we eat lunch in the Heights -- his old stomping grounds -- he sent me an impressively detailed list of candidate restaurants. The usuals were there -- Bedford, Shade, Dry Creek Cafe. All worthy selections. But it was the last suggestion, seemingly added as an afterthought, that caught my eye: Triple A Restaurant.

Triple A Restaurant? In the Heights? Never heard of it. Let's go!

The best way to describe Triple A Restaurant is that it's a restaurant hidden in plain sight. Tucked into the edge of the cacophony of warehouses and produce sheds collectively know as Canino's Market on Airline Drive, Triple A looks like another one of the non-descript, one-story office building that service the nearby market. Originally opened in 1938, it moved to its current location in 1942.

Next to the garish and gaudy signage of the neighborhood's innumerable panaderias, vulcanizadoras, pescaderas, gasolineras and tacquerias, Triple A's lone sign is almost bashful by comparison.

Once inside, the restaurant reveals itself as an old school diner/cafe in the Pig Stand mold -- dark wood paneling, linoleum floors, formica tabletops and flourescent lighting.

And the waitresses. I imagine some of them have been here for decades, and probably dispense as much attitude and opinion as they do iced tea and iceberg lettuce salads. In the restaurant business they're affectionately known as "lifers." Perhaps less affectionately they're known as "blue hairs." In either case for someone like me who makes it a hobby of poking, prodding, and challenging restaurant servers to show me some personality (the crustier and more curmudgeonly the better), the waitresses at Triple A are a gold mine.

When you order you either get one of the daily specials or something "off the menu." Ordering off the menu elicits a scowl from the waitress and an ominous warning that "it'll take 20 minutes" to cook.

I decided to order off the menu. And for me the measure of an old school diner like this is mainly the chicken-fried steak. I'm in general agreement with the conventional wisdom that recent years have seen a decline in the quality of CFS in urban areas, while rural Texas -- the Chicken-Fried Steak Belt if you will -- still serves up the best CFS. So I'm always in search of good CFS inside the loop. I had to try the CFS at Triple A.

To be honest, the chicken-fried steak at Triple A surprised me.

I was expecting a flabby, droopy, greasy, crust-separating-from-the-stringy-meat specimen you usually find at these types of joints. But when the waitress brought it out (in about five minutes, before my friend's daily special) with the ends curling up from the super hot frying oil and spilling over the edge of the plate, I knew I was on to something.

The first thing you notice is the crust is completely fused to the meat, enamel-like. The crust itself is flaky and crispy, with no extraneous grease, and potted by dark spots where the meat is just peeking through. The meat itself has been tenderized and pounded to within an inch of its life -- cut-with-a-fork tender. A generous bowl of cream sauce is served on the side as it should be.

As I spooned a dollop of sauce onto a mouthful-sized area of steak, cut it off with a fork and ate it, I realized that this may be one of the best old school, Southern-fried-style chicken-fried steaks in Houston.

It wasn't perfect. If I had my druthers the crust and gravy would have a lot more black pepper. Some might find the steak to be too tender/soft.

All-in-all the CFS at Triple A Restaurant is a great stand-in for the legendary chicken-fried steaks that are served in the family-owned cafes of small town Texas. And when it comes to atmosphere and attitude, the waitresses at Triple A dish out a pretty generous serving of that too.

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