Thursday, June 21, 2007

Chicken Fried Steak: The East/West Divide

Robb Walsh wrote a great article in yesterday's Houston Press on chicken fried steak. In it, he proposes something like a unified field theory for CFS. He makes sense of a question that I have been pondering for the last year:

How could anyone say that Mary's Cafe in Strawn, Texas has the best CFS in Texas?

Last year, I researched the question of who made Texas's best CFS. A lot of people on the web said that it is made by Mary's Cafe in Strawn, which lies midway between Fort Worth and Abilene, just off Interstate 20. So I made a pilgrimage to Strawn.

When I got there, Mary's CFS just seemed all wrong. The breading was thick, not crispy, and tasted like it had been burned a bit in the pan. Although the peppery flavor was good, I had a serious problem with the doughy consistency of the steak. As I have said here before, my perfect CFS is a marriage of (1) tender, thin meat with (2) a crispy, flavorful crust, plus (3) cream gravy that complements, but does not overwhelm, the flavor of the meat. A bad crust just throws everything else off.

I was so disappointed by my CFS pilgrimage to Strawn that I didn't even write a post about it. For weeks, I pondered: What went wrong? Was it just a bad day? Or did I just not get it?

Apparently, I just didn't get it. Walsh explains that Mary's serves the West Texas "panfried" version of the CFS, which is distinctly different from the crispy East Texas version. Walsh says that West Texans think the East Texas version "with its undulations and flakes, to be indulgent, overwrought and sinfully rich."

I prefer my "undulations and flakes." My preference makes sense. The East Texas version was the kind made by my grandma. All of my ancestors came to East Texas -- mostly in the Piney Woods -- between 1850 and 1900. That makes me a 5th or 6th generation East Texan. And it makes me more inclined to like the East Texan version of the CFS.

Walsh has helped me see that Mary's CFS is not bad. It is just pursuing a completely different ideal.

And its not my fault that I prefer the crispy versions of the CFS I get at Houston restaurants like Avenue Grill, Lankford Grocery, and even Prince's Hamburgers.

It's my East Texas genes.


Anonymous said...

From austin on the way to enchanted rock i stopped at a place in johnson city, which has a huge sign on top exclaming"world's best chicken fried steak"

it didn't make the robb walsh top 25 list, I wonder why? This was a few years ago, but I remember it was huge, and quite good, as was the peach cobbler, and jumbo glass of iced tea.
next time your out there, give it a try.

Anonymous said...

Given your choice of Lankford, Prince's, and Avenue Grill - I would think you would like the Hickory Hollow CFS, and although it is a bit off-kilter to recommend the chains, Black-Eyed Pea really does it right.

Great blog by the way.

anonymouseater said...

I haven't had the Hickory Hollow CFS in years, but I remember liking it very much.

Although I have been to Black-Eyed Pea many times, and I generally like their food, I don't recall every having their CFS. But I remember that it looked good.

Jill said...

I grew up in Houston, and the best chicken fried steak I can remember is from Goodson's Cafe in Tomball. My mom makes the west Texas kind of CFS, Goodson's Cafe serves the east Texas variety.

Anonymous said...

Do NOT waste your time on CFS at Black eyed Pea. Go to Barbeque Inn on Crosstimbers. It is very good. The gravy is a bit bland but a double shot of pepper fixes that up. Get it on the side and doctor it to your liking. Also the Hickory Hollow is really good, too.

anonymouseater said...

I agree about Barbeque Inn. Perhaps not my favorite in town -- I have had some hard-to-chew meat there -- but the crust is perfect.

Steven said...

I've eaten at Hill Country Cupboard before. The CFS is AMAZING. I'm from Virginia so I've eaten a lot of CFS in my life and their CFS is tops!

Anonymous said...

Alamo Cafe in San Antonio holds the top rung on the CFS ladder. Ask any real CFS Culinary expert about CFS mecca. Extra gravy... hold the green beans... extra frys.ummmm

James said...

As a 49 year track & field coaching veteran, I'ven eaten chicken fried steak in every part of Texas, but Mary's in Strawn, Texas is the best.

My student/athletes voted it #1 of all the places we've eaten, even in the U.S.

Coach James G. Morris

Anonymous said...

Went to Mary's in Strawn Texas on 11/02/2008. It was either the worst chicken-fried steak I've had since I was in the second grade at Tom c. Gooch elementary, or I don't "get it" either. Unpleasant at best.

Anonymous said...

We are going to Marys this weekend because my nephew plays baseball for Ranger and everyone raves about the chicken fired. I'm looking forward to comparing it the "real deal"! BUT I doubt it will top THE BEST in San Angelo at Zentner's Daughters Steakhouse. Don't believe me??? Go try it and see and that goes for the steaks too! Best Hands Down won't believe the taste, quality, size, and price. Well worth the trip again and again. said...

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