It was the French gastronomic philosopher, Brillat-Savarin, who stated: “Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are.” If I were to speak up, then I would be a chicken-fried steak. I didn’t expect it to turn out this way, but after almost two months of criss-crossing Texas, and eating chicken-frieds at every opportunity, I have no one to blame but myself.
Since the end of my trip, I have been loafing about in a brutish haze, a sort of Philistine dementia, that I can only attribute to an excess of cream gravy.
I flitted from one cafe to another like a spring-intoxicated dragonfly searching for The Perfect One. Some sent me reeling out with a purple face. Others caused my pulse to race and my heart to sing. I can only compare the glorious feeling after eating a perfect chicken-fried steak to one remembered from years ago when I learned those were not Jane Russell’s knees stuck up under her sweater.
It is perfectly useless to describe good food, as it is any work of art. One reason in this particular case is that when the nose and palate figure so strongly in the final judgment, words alone are inadequate. If the 245 taste buds in your tongue are in full working order, and your smeller is not clogged, you will learn soon enough.
However, a few definitions are in order. Even the most beef-witted reader must know that it is called chicken-fried steak because it is prepared like fried chicken: covered with flour and a batter mix, ideally made without eggs; seasoned with salt and pepper, and cooked in clear grease in an uncovered iron skillet for five or six minutes on each side. To deep-fat fry the tenderized baby beef or veal is to beget something reminiscent, in texture, of a Daniel Green comfy slipper. Unfortunately, in most Texas cafes, the slipper is the rule, not the exception.
The chicken-fried is a dish that is somewhat cumbersome for aesthetes. For that matter, the whole state is rather cumbersome for aesthetes, and if you are an aesthete traveling across Texas, you will starve overnight waiting for pâté, escargot d’Alsace, or some other member of the haute cuisine family. Ordering such items will get you thrown out of most places west of the Hill Country.
If you are a frequent traveler through Texas, it is best to adhere in spirit to the last words of a legendary French cook, uttered two months before his 100th birthday—words engraved on the hearts of all food freaks: “Vite, apportez moi le dessert, je sens que je vais passer.” (“Quick, bring in the dessert. I think I’m dying.”) Such resolve will get you by anyone, be it a blue-ribbon chef at Maxim’s or some young lout working out of a Pig ’N’ Whistle in Muleshoe whose masterpiece is an atomburger and frosted shake.
Right away, I would like to dispel the widespread popular belief that all small town cafes and truck stops serve good chicken-fried steaks, and all big city cafes serve up blocks of wood, covered with gravy that looks like saddle soap. There is just as much bile on the Brazos as on the Trinity, for neither the farmer nor the financier has cornered the market yet.
After a month and a half of travel—I ate good chicken-frieds in LaGrange, Austin, and Blanco—I found Fran’s Restaurant in Dallas, located right off the intersection of Hall and McKinney (3005 Hall). Like many good eating places, its interior is simple and unprepossessing. There are six tables, three booths, a blackboard menu stating the luncheon offering: three meat entrees, one of which was a chicken-fried steak, and three of four vegetables (cream corn, black-eyed peas, broccoli, or yams) for $1.45. It was enough lunch to make a goose faint. Fran’s is closed only on Sundays; open only for breakfast and lunch from 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Here I found a chicken-fried steak for all seasons. Owner Marcus Capetillo personally approves beef bought each day from Loggins Meat Company. There wasn’t a trace of gristle. The grease and grill were clean; the batter, not too heavy; the seasoning, just right. Head cook Dot Richardson managed to feed nearly 80 people in an hour, 90 percent eating the chicken-fried, and still maintained top quality.
There you have it: what it is and where to find it. I have retired from the game, suffering from a fearsome case of bloat and nightmares that I am sleeping not under a sheet, but under a layer of cream gravy.
However, my enthusiasm is not dampened, only in temporary drydock. I wonder where one can find the perfect Amish box-lunch in Texas?