My mama was a wonderful woman but she wasn’t much of a cook. She could slap together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a lunchbox, but when supper came around the primary go-to dish was something my brother, Billy Ray, and I dubbed “Ma’s Mush,” essentially a can of pork ’n’ beans mixed into some ground meat. (Though I have to admit I loved it then and will sometimes stir up a bowl today. It’s pretty tasty when you dip it with corn chips.)
The exception to mama’s lack of cooking abilities was when she would take a piece of round steak, beat the heck out of it with a mallet from my daddy’s toolbox, drag it through egg, cover it with flour, and fry it in a skillet. Cream gravy was the finishing touch and french fries made in bacon grease saved from breakfast made the meal a hit at our table.
Later, I realized her one-and-only decent dish was actually the popular Southern staple chicken-fried steak. It’s served at just about every hole-in-the-wall diner we’ve visited in our travels around the state. But over the years, I never found one quite like my mama made—until I ran across Mary’s Cafe in 2012.
Mary Tretter opened her little place on the side of Texas Highway 16 in Strawn back in 1986. You might drive right by the place except you can’t help but notice that there are always a lot of pickup trucks and a few cars parked out front, with a packed overflow lot across the road. (Yep, it’s that good.)
What you’ll get is a three-quarter-pound piece of steak that’s so big it covers the plate it comes on and so tender you can cut it with a fork. And the important thing at Mary’s, at least to me, is that it’s pan-fried. I have discovered over the years that most places deep-fry their chicken-fried steak, and, while I like that just fine, it doesn’t have the flavor of a piece of meat cooked on the stove top in bacon drippings. Mary’s does.
Mary’s Cafe is still in business, and if you stop by, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. It’s chicken-fried steak just like mama made.