In most parts of the U.S.A. they don’t know beans or grits or whatever about chicken fried steak. They make country fried steak, smothered steak, and variations on the theme, but it’s not the same thing after all. From how you make is open to interpretation.
On an individual basis, the “how” largely depends on where you grew up, and how your mother or grandmother made the dish. Texas food historian and cookbook author Robb Walsh says there are three distinct styles. East Texas CFS is dipped in an egg wash and then in flour; the Central Texas version uses bread crumbs, and the West Texas preparation calls for egg wash only. And those are not the only variations. Some cooks coat the meat with cracker crumbs, cornflakes, or some other crunchy topping. Some recipes call for a batter rather than simple breading.
Some of the variations are demonstrated by the three top choices for the best chicken fried steak in the voting, Tracks, Pop’s Place, and City Limits. James Auldridge, kitchen manager at Pop’s Place said he seasons the flour, and “…then we rub the flour in with the palm of the hand.” Terry Rathfom, the cook at City Limits used a triple dip of flour, buttermilk, and flour again. “One trick is to tuck the edges of the steak under and press them down to sort of seal them. That way the grease doesn’t get to the meat and burn it.” At Tracks, the key is tenderness, so they make sure their steaks are free of gristle. All three of Texoma’s favorites deep fry their steaks.
The traditional sides include French fries, rolls or toast and often a small salad, but the queen of the add ons is cream gravy. It’s basically a blonde roux made from a bit of the cooking fat, fond, and flour cooked for a few minutes to remove the raw taste of the flour. Then milk is added, simmered until the gravy thickens, and then seasoned with black pepper and whatever secret ingredient the cook likes. Like the CFS, there a many variations on its basic preparation.
Food historians have not pinned down the origins of chicken fried steak (or CFS), but more than likely the idea came to the new world from Germany along with the German and Austrian immigrants who settled the Central Texas area in the1840s. Along with their language and customs, they brought their cuisine. One of the favorites was Wiener schnitzel, a thin cut of breaded and fried veal that was borrowed from the Austrians. The Italians have a version called coletta ala milanesa, which worked its way in to South America, and often is seen on the menus of Mexican restaurants.
However the idea got to Texas, it got here. Lamesa, in Dawson County in the Texas panhandle, makes one claim of ownership of CFS. The locals hold that in 1911, Jimmy Dan Perkins, a harried short order cook in a Lamesa café, mixed up an order for fried chicken and one for fried steak, resulting in the iconic Lone Star staple. In 2011, Lamesa hosted the first annual Chicken Fried Festival to celebrate the centenary of the happy accident.
The legendary Pig Stand, first opened in Dallas in 1921 and was unique in that there was no dining room, only drive up service. Waiters came to the patron’s car, took the order and delivered it. There were ten Pig Stands in Dallas alone by 1924 and in the 1930s had 130 locations in Texas, California, and other states. The Pig Stands also put forth ownership to the first chicken fried steak sandwiches, and the first drive-in restaurant with car hops. Today there is only one Pig Stand left, in San Antonio, and chicken fried steak occupies a prominent place on the menu along with fried onion rings, another item to which they lay claim.
How to cook it is an open case too. Tradition calls for a cast iron skillet, while deep fat fryers have become a more convenient and faster way to GB&D (Golden Brown & Delicious). Mary’s Café in Strawn, TX, held by many to be the tops in Texas, cooks her steaks on a flat iron grill.
As big a deal as chicken fried steak is in the Lone Star state, you would think it would stand first the hearts and tastes of Texans, but when it came time to name an official state food, the legislature sided with the chili heads. Reaching out across the Red River, Oklahoma appropriated CFS at their official state dish, but that’s all right; they get most of their football players from Texas too.