IT IS SAID THAT YOU CAN MAKE ANYTHING TASTE GOOD if you batter and fry it. I cannot confirm this for sure, because there are still some foods prepared this way that I have not sampled—but not many. I’ve been eating my way around the state to check things off the list, and I’ve done it the Texas way. Which is to say, I’ve stuck with chicken-fried.
In the beginning was chicken-fried steak, of course, which is one of those items that separate Texans from other people, especially Yankees, who cannot fathom the notion of battering an unappetizingly tough cut of beef and then frying it in a puddle of grease. These days their objection has something to do with cholesterol, I believe, though the truth is, they’ve always considered the dish a sign of an uncultured culture. But I ask you, what else are you going to do to make a bad cut of beef taste good? And if you don’t do it, won’t the meat just go to waste?
That dilemma was probably the motivation behind the creation of the chicken-fried steak. Cowboys needed a simple way to make their grub more edible out on the range, so they took a cue from the Germans who were pouring into the state in the middle of the nineteenth century, who breaded and fried a veal cutlet and called it Wiener schnitzel. The cowboys did the same with round steak, which was much more plentiful in these parts. They simply moistened the meat, probably with water or sourdough starter, dipped it in flour, and then fried it in about a quarter-inch of hot lard or beef tallow. The result was cheap, tasty, and filling, a bit of culinary magic.
The chuck wagon cooks didn’t have eggs or milk, but once refrigeration allowed folks to store those items, the classic chicken-fried-steak recipe evolved: Round steak is pounded to tenderize it, dipped in an egg-and-milk wash, and dredged with flour, then dipped and dredged once more before being pan-fried in up to half an inch of hot oil. (It’s permissible to dip-and-dredge only once, but double dipping produces a better-looking and more flavorful crust.) This is the way chicken used to be fried too, which is how chicken-fried steak got its name. Which brings up a salient point: In the fast-food era, most chicken—and much chicken-fried steak—is no longer fried that way; it’s immersed in oil—i.e., it’s deep-fried. Some argue that the frying technique doesn’t matter. I give them the benefit of the doubt only when the end results justify it. If you’re an absolute purist these days, you’ll miss out on a lot of delicious grub.
Although we Texans don’t chicken-fry as much as we used to, when it comes to good eats, old ways die hard and we are an ingenious lot; witness the variety of chicken-fried foods out there, which would surely puzzle those old cowhands. There were disappointments as I explored this new culinary frontier. I never did find a good chicken-fried cake or brownie, for example. Helpful friends pointed out that fried candy bars and other sweets were becoming fairgrounds staples, but they don’t count because they make no pretense of being chicken-fried (most use a packaged funnel cake or beer batter). Besides, why waste a perfectly good batter on something already as sublime as a Snickers bar or as irredeemable as a Twinkie or an Oreo? Chicken-fried Spam is a regular entry at Austin’s annual Spamarama cook-off, but I couldn’t find one restaurant where you can plunk down your money and enjoy it. Other chicken-fried meats, such as pork chops and chicken (oh, the unintentional irony in calling a dish chicken-fried chicken!), were too commonplace to include. Sometimes I was simply too late: The Driskill Grill, in Austin, once served a chicken-fried-rabbit salad (you know rabbit; that’s the meat that really does taste just like chicken), but it has long since been taken off the menu.
In the end I encountered a range of chicken-fried oddities. Although I confess that some of my favorites don’t conform to a purist’s definition of “chicken fried,” they make a compelling case for rethinking it. And no, I don’t eat like this every day.
CHICKEN-FRIED BACON (photos not available online), Sodolak’s Original Country Inn, Snook: This might well be the most over-the-top example of chicken-fried (although the Chisholm Club’s foie gras was definitely a contender). But then, if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it all the way. This steakhouse serves six strips, with a bowl of thick cream gravy, for $4. You might expect the batter to be overwhelming, but it’s so thin you can see patches of the red meat through it. The moment when the crackle of the crust gives way to the fatty, salty taste of the pork is truly transcendent. 13 miles southwest of College Station on Texas Highway 60 West, 979-272-6002.
CHICKEN-FRIED FOIE GRAS (photos not available online), Chisholm Club, Fort Worth: Alas, the Chisholm Club closed while this issue was going to press, but its down-home treatment of an uptown delicacy was so unlikely—and so Texan—that I’ve decided to honor it posthumously. This has got to be difficult to do well, something like trying to chicken-fry Jell-O. After all, we’re talking about fattened duck liver, which has the approximate texture of a stick of butter. You have to be able to get the crust brown and crunchy before you cook away the insides. But thanks to high temperatures and a light, traditional batter, the late, great nouveau-cowboy eatery pulled it off.
CHICKEN-FRIED QUAIL (photo not available online), David’s Patio, Mexia: For $8.95, this country-cooking place near Lake Mexia serves you two birds with a salad and two sides (choose from grilled vegetables, rice, baked potato, and fries). Now, quail doesn’t have the most distinctive flavor to begin with, and it’s very bony, so some find it too much work for too little meat. But this crust is so flaky and delicate that it elevates the whole dish. And if some of it crumbles onto the plate—which some of it most certainly will— just mop it up with the rich cream gravy. U.S. 84 West at Lake Mexia turnoff, 254-472-9950.
CHICKEN-FRIED LOBSTER (photo not available online), Cafe Aspen, Fort Worth: This proved to be the only major disappointment I sampled. For $29.95, this casual, upscale eatery offers eight ounces of lobster tail, in three chunks, with red-wine mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. It’s a variant on traditional chicken-fried: The “gravy” is a yellow bell pepper, saffron, and garlic cream sauce, and the meat is soaked in buttermilk before being coated with seasoned flour and deep-fried. The problem was that the lobster, on this night, anyhow, couldn’t hold up to the frying and turned chewier than North Dakota calamari. 6103 Camp Bowie Boulevard, 817-738-0838.
CHICKEN-FRIED ANTELOPE (photo not available online), Bitter End Bistro and Brewery, Austin: This Warehouse District brewpub fudges a bit by using buttermilk instead of egg for the thin batter, but otherwise the dish is a classic. The shoulder cutlet of Texas-raised free-range antelope has the same texture as the beef round normally used for chicken-fried steak. At first bite the flavor is clean, almost neutral, in perfect balance with the crust and the jalapeño cream gravy, but then a subtly sweet, subtly gamy aftertaste kicks in. To accompany the $18 dinner, which includes crunchy green beans and Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, the beer of choice is the house’s full-bodied porter. 311 Colorado, 512-478-2337.
CHICKEN-FRIED FRENCH FRIES (photos not available online), Country Store, Cotulla: On the plate, these didn’t look like much—except, perhaps, too much to finish. But I found them addictive and ate nearly the whole $2.99 plate (never mind that my oh-so-witty companion pronounced them “redundant”). I understand they’re especially popular at breakfast. Technically they’re not authentic, because the batter is made with buttermilk and the spuds are deep-fried, but I’m gonna let that ride—this time. (Hyde Park Bar & Grill, in Austin, does a more gentriﬁed version of this dish using thinner fries and peanut oil.) Interstate 35 and FM 468, 830-879-3319.