The color is toasty-brown; the light fried batter is crisp and not too thick; the meat inside is tender—what more do you need to know about the admirable CFS at Tony’s Southern Comfort, a family-operated place in East Austin. A spunky and exceptionally crunchy envelope of fried batter surrounds a properly tenderized round steak at Freddie’s Place, a contempo-retro-looking cafe with indoor and outdoor seating, the latter under giant oaks. Just one caveat: Bypass the pasty cream gravy. The sprawling CFS at Threadgill’s is so tenderized it’s almost like a burger in a lacy batter sleeve; both locations remind you of a forties roadhouse.
Sighs of utter happiness accompany your first bite of CFS at the Mecca, an old-school coffee shop that’s changed little since opening in 1938. This supertender cut isn’t especially thick, but with its crunchy, brownish-gold crust, it’s bigger than a linebacker’s outstretched hand. Ask for the warm, smooth, well-seasoned cream gravy on the side. The wait is long at peak hours for a copper-topped table at Celebration, the landmark where chicken-fried steak leads the list of pleasures. Clad in a big, fluffy, amber crust, the tender, thickish steak comes perfectly accented with a spoonful of lush cream gravy on top.
Massey’s, an age-old cafe on the near south side of town, truly deserves its sterling reputation for chicken-fried steak: The meat snuggles into a fresh, crunchy, burnished crust, and when you slice through, it’s as tender as all get-out; beneath, there’s a veritable pond of smooth, mild cream gravy. The large bovine statue atop the friendly barnlike hangout that is the Dixie House Cafe serves as a beacon to CFS lovers. Huge, well-pounded, and flavorful, the steak is surrounded by a thick but crisp glove of deftly seasoned fried batter.
Despite its name, the Barbecue Inn—an archetypal, mid-twentieth-century, Southern-style family restaurant—may serve the best chicken-fried steak in the city. It’s fork-tender, with a crackling crust enveloping juicy, flavorful beef; get your buttery cream gravy on the side. The worst you can say of the CFS (choose between brown or cream gravy) at Avenue Grill, where cops and courthouse types eat at Formica tables, is that it’s pounded so tender it could turn mushy. Laudably, it doesn’t.
Richards’ Chicken has been serving chicken-fried steak since 1965. Under the watchful eyes of assorted wild game and fowl mounted on the walls, speedy servers deliver thick steaks wrapped in a crunchy bronze coating, and the gravy is, as they claim on the storefront, “good enough to shame Grannie.” Housed in a converted convenience store a few blocks from U.S. 84, J.J.’s Cafe, in Slaton, serves a CFS that is tasty and tender, with a crust that is crumbly but not greasy. A smooth, peppery cream gravy complements it well. A venerable and popular workingman’s grill in downtown Lubbock, the Ranch House serves a deliciously toothsome, flaky-crusted, lunch-size steak accompanied by cream gravy made by knowing hands.
A crackling-good exterior and medium-thick meat make for a better-than-usual chicken-fried steak at LuLu’s, an all-night diner, coffee shop, and bakery; the cream gravy could use more oomph, however. The upside of the casual, counter-order Hungry Horse’s CFS is that the meat is thin, allowing for a great ratio of tasty beef to exemplary, well-seasoned crust. The downside? Well, the meat is thin.
Small-town gems — City Market Cafe Owner Janell Buse begins cooking at seven o’clock every morning. At eleven, folks from the Central Texas towns surrounding FLATONIA pour into the high-ceilinged old bank building that now houses her cafe. They line up at the steam table for three to four daily entrées, like Wednesday’s exemplary meat loaf under a tangy tomato-sauce topping and juicy fried chicken in an almost fluffy batter. The vegetables might be greens, fresh carrots, brussels sprouts, butter beans (cooked from dry beans, not canned)—whatever Buse feels like making. Sunday almost always offers a spread of chicken and dumplings, roast beef, liver and onions, and fried chicken. This repast will set you back— prepare yourself—six bucks. Not bad for a trip down memory lane.