A good chicken fried steak is a thing of beauty. It is golden brown and crispy outside; moist and tender but toothy inside; it’s peppery and plate-filling; and it comes slathered in cream gravy. It will scare the hell out of your favorite nutritionist.
When I was 14, I worked two summer jobs at a park near my home in a small town in Louisiana. I had an hour between the two jobs and there was a luncheonette within easy walking distance that served CFS with mashed potatoes and two veggies for $2.95. It was a food epiphany; a transcendent experience that helped me see that food could be art. I had chicken fried steak for 75 consecutive days that summer and began a life-long love affair with this true Southern delicacy. It helped make me a bigger person.
I’ve eaten CFS in diners, drive-ins, and dives all over the South, but I think Texas does it best. They take it very seriously. You can insult a man’s wife in Texas, but if you disparage his chili, barbecue, or chicken fried steak he’s likely to shoot your ass. Texas, of course, lays claim to the invention of CFS as it does barbecue and much that is good in American society. In this case, there is some historic support. German and Austrian immigrants who came to the hill towns of central Texas in the mid-19th century were masters at creating delicacy from inexpensive cuts of beef that the natives rejected. It is not hard to imagine them tenderizing tough pieces of round steak and breading and frying them just like the Weiner Schnitzel they ate back in the old country.
My Connecticut neighbors get confused by chicken fried steak, thinking it must somehow include chicken. It does not. It is usually round steak, although sometimes cube steak or sirloin or flank steak or richer cuts for those feeling fancy. The round steak is cut thin and then pounded much thinner to tenderize the meat and make it easier to fry quickly which the breading requires. The breading is where the name comes from. It is like what you will find on good fried chicken. You take the pounded steak, dip it in a wash that includes milk or buttermilk, egg, and spices, and then you dredge it in a flour mixture. You then fry it for three to five minutes per side in lard or Crisco or vegetable oil and you are half ready. The next and absolutely essential step to creating the delicacy is to make cream gravy from the pan drippings left after frying. This is ladled over the steak just before serving or served in a dish on the side for those who wish to give the pretense of moderation. In better dives it is served with mashed potatoes and a vegetable or two.
Here’s what to look for: Great CFS has a tasty, crispy coating that avoids wilting or being shell-like. As with good fried chicken, when it is done well the coating can be the principal virtue of the dish. The meat must have integrity. It should be tender, but not pounded into lacy shreds. It should be juicy and toothy and have the fine beefy flavor of a good steak. It is easy to overcook if the meat is pounded too thin or if it is cooked too hot or too long; a condition revealed almost certainly by a crust that is too brown or burned. You can also spot this flaw because it tastes nasty.
The classic gravy is created by making a roux with flour and spices added to the pan drippings with perhaps a soupcon of sweet cream butter. It is thinned by adding milk, half and half, or cream. It should be thick, but it must be liquid. It should not congeal. It should pour over the steak yet cling to it. If it runs off the steak and pools on the plate either too much milk or not enough flour was used. If it sits on the steak like an ugly growth, not enough milk was added. If it has a sharp, acrid taste, either the flour was burned by too much heat too fast or because the remnants of breading left in the pan drippings were burned.
CFS is not high concept food but it does require careful execution. In my experience perfect execution is rare. I have found great execution more frequently in Texas than anyplace else. In fact, I am often surprised at just how good CFS can be there and how inexpensive it is. It is common to see a giant CFS that completely covers the plate and comes with mashed potatoes and a vegetable, all executed well for under $10.
It reminds me a bit of the boudin found in roadside joints in Louisiana where everyone seems to be competing to make their version more delicious than anyone else. Indeed, in Texas, one of the favorite pastimes is arguing about who makes the best CFS in the state. Just Google “best chicken fried steak in Texas” and follow the commentaries. They do take the question seriously down there. And it is a good question, one worthy of proper journalistic exploration. As soon as I lose 25-30 pounds and gas prices get below $3.00, I might just do the exploration myself.
In the act of contemplating the trip, I decided to whip up some CFS and gravy of my own. Click here to see the recipe.