Brisket gets all the love in Texas, but chicken fried steak deserves a cherished spotlight, too. A single bite of the Southern staple brings back the flavors of the past, from school cafeteria lunches to home-cooked dinners. Sometimes known as country fried steak or even pan-fried steak, chicken fried steak IS Texas. And what better place to find the iconic dish than in the state’s capitol, Austin.
Sure, there are many places in Texas that claim to make the best chicken fried steak. There’s Goodson’s Cafe outside of Houston, which declare themselves as the "Home of the Best Chicken Fried Steak in Texas." The chicken fried steak at All Good Cafe in Dallas is supposed to be the "world’s best." Then there’s Strawn’s Mary’s Cafe, Houston’s Barbecue Inn, Roanoke’s Babe’s Chicken Dinner House, and...the list could go on and on.
In Austin alone, highlights include the Broken Spoke, the South Austin honky tonk that proclaims to be the "last of the true Texas Dance Halls serving the best chicken fried steak in Texas." There are institutes like Hoover’s Cooking, Hill’s Cafe, Jack Allen’s Kitchen, and Threadgill’s, as well as relative newcomers to the scene like Lucy’s Fried Chicken, Jacoby’s Restaurant and Mercantile, and Green Mesquite.
"It’s purely Texas," Jack Gilmore, chef and owner of Jack Allen’s Kitchen, said of the dish, "and Texas has embraced it." After running restaurants in Arizona and California, he realized that the chicken fried steak didn’t translate well in other areas. "If you put a chicken fried steak on a menu in Phoenix, they wouldn’t understand it."
As the legend goes, chicken fried steak's birthplace was supposedly in Ethel’s Home Cooking, located in the West Texas city of Lamesa, in 1911. After a misread order for "chicken, fried steak," cook James Donald Perkins took the directions literally and concocted the dish. Sadly, the tale didn't turn out to be true.
The Statesman originally reported the anecdote in 1976, but it was actually an intentionally fictional story. Despite the discovery, the city has honored the fable by hosting the three-day Lamesa’s Original Chicken-Fried Steak Festival in April every year since 2011. From the city bill introducing the day:
Whereas, Recognizing a good thing when they see it, Lamesa’s city leaders have organized Lamesa’s Original Chicken-Fried Steak Festival to pay tribute to this gustatory delight and to raise awareness of its status as an icon of Texas cooking
As of 2012, October 26 is officially the Texas Chicken Fried Steak Day.
The true story is that the dish was likely created during the wave of German immigration to Texas in the mid-1800s, according to the Texas Monthly. Chicken fried steak is very similar to the German wiener schnitzel, a fried breaded veal cutlet. The proliferation of the dish made it easy for the state to adopt it as their own. In a piece for Serious Eats this year, Melanie Haupt explained the possible transition from veal to beef:
German settlers likely found that veal and pork were a bit thin on the ground, but that beef was in abundance, especially during the Civil War. During the war, Texas supplied the Confederacy with beef, which led to a steep rise in the cattle population. As such, the switch to cheap cuts of beef in the preparation of wiener schnitzel likely occurred sometime in the mid-19th century.
The cooking method is simple enough. First, tenderize the steak and cover it with seasoned flour or bread crumbs mixed with spices. Drench it in egg or milk wash. Put on more of the dry mix, then fry it in a skillet with oil, lard, or butter, thus making the meat chicken fried. Use the leftover drippings to prepare a peppery creamy white gravy, and it’s all set. The order of the wet and dry layers varies, too, depending on the cook’s preference.
Texas food writer Robb Walsh broke down the three regional differences of the chicken fried steak in Texas. Central Texan chicken fried is crispier with bread crumbs, as he described it in the Houston Press in 2007. That’s compared to the dry-fried West Texas version and the East Texas one with flour and no bread crumbs.
For Hoover Alexander, owner and chef of Hoover’s Cooking in Austin, chicken fried steak is "comfort food, and it really connects to people emotionally." As a Texan, Alexander grew up with "the forerunners of chicken fried steak," pan-fried foods. Those beginnings are what he referred to as "the humble roots" of the dish.
Gilmore knew it as country fried steak during his childhood in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1970s. When he came to Austin, he came to realize that chicken fried steak was "a peasant food," because, using a bargain cut of meat, "one steak would go a long way to feed a family of three or four." In his restaurant, the kitchen experimented with lots of different beef cuts, including a New York strip.
Threadgill’s, originally a gas station in Brentwood that served beer in 1933, became a diner in 1979 thanks to owner Eddie Wilson. For the menu, he set out to "duplicate what I was raised on." He added, "Everybody eats fried stuff," and so chicken fried steak went on the menu.
His cooking form is what he calls "wet-dry-wet." He first dips in egg wash, followed by flour, then egg wash again, making it "dripping wet." As much as he’d like to be able to cook the restaurant's chicken fried steaks in cast iron skillets all the time, the demand makes it impossible to do so. So he is resigned to use a deep fryer.
The key to a good chicken fried steak, to Wilson, is the crust. "On the whole range of the desires of the palate, almost always, crispy is going on top of the list," he explained. "Everything crispy gets less so when you do anything wrong with it. Ours is just about as good as I think you can do in the commercial atmosphere."
Wilson lamented the cost-cutting shortcuts of other restaurants at the time. His go-to chicken fried steak at one point was at the former Stallion on North Lamar, but "it was awful." He said that they were pre-breaded and frozen, costing them only 14 cents. The old Austin chain the Lone Star Cafe went so far as to manufacture a homemade quality to their frozen patties, as he explained: "They actually had a manual pressed palm print on one side of the patty with the breading on, just to be able to lie."
The final note for the complete chicken fried steak experience is the gravy. "You’ve got to finish it off with some really badass gravy," said Jack Gilmore. While his kitchen serves green chile gravy, he doesn’t agree with brown gravy at all. "[It] isn’t the right way to eat it," he said. White gravy is his way to go. Alexander calls gravy "an equal partner" to the meat. He makes his with chicken stock and bacon drippings for a "country home flavor." Threadgill's uses tilting braisers to make 15-16 gallons of gravy, made with bone marrow, at a time. "There’s nothing wimpy about the gravy," he said.
The historic Hill’s Cafe, which has been around for 65 years, serves a flour- and panko-covered cutlet that comes with three gravy options. Along with the traditional white pepper and brown (the latter, according to a server, is "hearty, delicious, and more savory"), there’s also the popular yella gravy, a velouté sauce made with chicken stock and turmeric.
The steadfast popularity of chicken fried steak made way for other twists on the classic gravy. Over at Olivia’s, there’s the Willie Nelson Fried Steak, a meaty tribute to the dazed country singer’s run-in with the law. The steak is topped with a caffeinated red eye gravy. The Louisiana-styled Evangeline Cafe’s gravy comes with a mess of Cajun spices. Moonshine Patio and Grill’s is made with chipotle peppers.
This trend even gave way to chicken frying other foods, like chicken breasts. Both Stiles Switch and Jack Allen's Kitchen have done chicken fried beef ribs. Jack Allen's menu even features a dedicated chicken fried anything section. Threadgill's offers a chicken fried pork chop. There's even chicken fried rabbit out in Los Angeles.
There’s an option for every taste, and Gilmore has an easy explanation for why that is: "Who doesn’t like crunchy meat with cream gravy?"