|HOFFBRAU: Chicken-fried steak slathered in thick gravy? Nice. Served atop buttery Texas toast? Excellent.|
Racking up 10 or 15 is no sweat, and you can get into the 20s without too much effort. The upper 30s are work. At this point, you’re driving through strange parts of town for the sole purpose of scouting out possible CFS locations. The 40s are a meditation. There’s enough time between chicken-fried steaks to ponder the great questions, such as: “Would it be sacrilegious to pray for divine guidance in finding another CFS?” Or, “Do I have obsessive compulsive disorder or just obsessive compulsive tendencies?”
At the end of the road, I ate CFS at 51 places. (The ranking from Nos. 51 to 26 is on the opposite page. For the full reviews of all restaurants visited—necessarily condensed for D Magazine’s limited space—go to www.DallasFood.org.) I can second-guess myself about whether, say, No. 8 is better than No. 10. And I understand that people might disagree with some of the details of particular rankings. But I have confidence in the overall accuracy of this survey (see sidebars on methodology and my definition of a traditional chicken-fried steak).
At its finest, the bold beef flavor, the tender texture, the crisp coating, the gravy’s salty sweetness (accented with peppery bite)—it’s a unique form of poetry to the palate. My job was to separate the good poetry from the bad.
25. Kel’s Restaurant
5337 Forest Ln.
This diner gets kudos from Kent Rathbun in Chef’s Night Out. Another perfectly average chicken-fried steak. Nothing to rave about, but a decent “meat and three” for the money.
24. Matt’s Rancho Martinez
6332 La Vista Dr.
One of the signature dishes at the Martinez restaurants is the “cowboy-style” chicken-fried steak, served with chili con carne, cheese, and onions. Since that approach conceals the merits or weaknesses of the underlying CFS, I ordered the conventional version, with gravy on the side. The pan-fried steak was very thinly pounded and reasonably tender, but a little short on flavor. Breading was greasy and patchy. Overall, not bad. But not good enough to shine standing alone. “Cowboy-style” is the way to go here.
23. Brothers Fried Chicken
14203 Coit Rd.
A common description of chicken-fried steak is that it’s “steak, fried like fried chicken.” But the breading or batter of fried chicken usually has a different texture than that of CFS. I’d never really considered this until I had Brothers’ chicken-fried steak. It had a thick, crunchy breading, reminiscent of their fried chicken, making for a noticeable difference from the vast majority of chicken-fried steaks. Though the meat was fairly tender, the breading was slightly overcooked and had a burned-oil flavor to it. On a repeat visit, the CFS wasn’t as overcooked, making for a slight improvement.
CIRCLE GRILL: Jerri Smith has served CFS at the East Dallas landmark for 28 years.
3701 N. Buckner Blvd.
The breading was thin and crisp, but quickly grew soggy. Although the meat was tough and filled with gristle, it was actually very flavorful. Not a great CFS, but somewhat better than average.
21. Saltgrass Steak House
13561 N. Central Expwy.
Saltgrass proclaims itself “Texas to the bone.” It’s a silly tagline, but it also irritates me. If they were off in Montana or Vermont, I wouldn’t mind. But what does it mean when businesses market themselves as “Texan” in the state of Texas? Answer: money-minded individuals are trying to sell us our own identity. But invariably what they’re peddling isn’t our identity, but a clumsy stereotype. Irritating as hell. As the inimitable Terry Allen sang, “I don’t wear no Stetson/But I’m willin’ to bet, son/That I’m a big a Texan as you are.” After that brief diatribe, I have to admit that Saltgrass’ CFS is slightly above the Dallas average.
20. The Loon
3531 McKinney Ave.
Like most pan-fried chicken-fried steaks I had in Dallas, the extra effort didn’t result in superior breading. Here, it was spotty, soft on top, and excessively greasy underneath. The heavily peppered breading and slightly sweet gravy only partially offset the blandness of the tough meat, which had the taste of overcooked ground beef.
19. South Dallas Cafe
3126 Grand Ave.
Since the CFS I was served had been doing time under a heat lamp, I had limited expectations of it. But the fairly tender meat and breading had good flavor. Of all the CFSs I ate on this search, this was the most reminiscent of my mother’s. One of the better meat-and-three values in this series.
18. Garden Café
5310 Junius St.
The chicken-fried steak, available as a blackboard special on Thursdays, was fairly tender and had good flavor. Seasoning of the breading was on the aggressive side (with a little more chile-powder kick than most in Dallas), but not obnoxiously so. The CFS here was held back on two visits by the softness of the breading. They make the steaks ahead of time and store them in the cafeteria line until they’re served. Five minutes of storage and most breading will begin to degrade (especially when held over steam); and, during one visit, the steaks appeared to be held as long as 30 minutes before service. If you can, time your order to get one fresh from the fryer. I imagine the results would be somewhat better.
17. Good Eats
3888 Oak Lawn Ave., Ste. 101
The chicken-fried steak was exactly what I was expecting, based on recent experiences at this location. The meat was tender and of decent quality. But the breading, though crisp, had a slightly off, almost burnt flavor to it. (Old oil?) There was a time, several years ago, when the breading was consistently quite good. Then, after a certain point, every CFS I’ve had there has suffered from the same problem with the breading. It’s a shame, because that’s the only thing holding this back from being a fine chicken-fried steak.
16. Metro Grill
4425 N. Central Expwy.
The first time I had CFS at Metro Grill, I thought it had promise. The meat and breading had nice flavor, though the gristle quotient was on the high side. (I’ll take tough and flavorful over tender and insipid any day.) The second visit was a train wreck, owing to oil that was below cooking temperature, but it was ameliorated by a gracious staff and a gift card-offering manager. The third visit was much closer to the first. Decent flavor to the meat (though still tough). Nicely crisp breading (with a pebbly, bread crumb-like texture). Not outstanding, but pretty good.
8949 Garland Rd.
Barbec’s is an East Dallas institution, best known for its breakfasts. I had heard some positive comments about their chicken-fried steak over the years but hadn’t tried it. The lunch menu CFS was good-sized for the money. It looked a little undercooked, based on the color of the breading. It was nicely crisp, though blandly seasoned. The heavily cubed meat appeared to be knitted together but was tender and moist. In all, a decent chicken-fried steak at a reasonable price.
14. Bone Daddy’s House of Smoke
8856 Spring Valley Rd.
Bone Daddy’s has an almost entirely young male clientele, garish décor, skimpily clad waitresses, and a pretty good chicken-fried steak. On each visit, the CFS arrived looking flat. There was no telltale pebbling to indicate Frozen Patty Syndrome (see sidebar, opposite page); pulling back the breading revealed a heavily cubed cube steak (any more and it would be ground beef). The meat was uniform in thickness (or, rather, thinness, due to having been pounded or rolled flat) and fork tender. Breading was fairly thin, peppery, and with a little more chile powder than one usually finds in Dallas. Though the breading wasn’t thick, the meat was so thin that its flavor tended to get lost under the more aggressively seasoned breading. Despite the imperfections, enjoyable.
13. Tin Star
2626 Howell St., Ste. 100
Tin Star, like a number of chains in this series, began right here in Dallas. I chose to sample the CFS at their original location in Uptown. The CFS was on the small side, with slightly greasy breading and a weaker-than-ideal beef flavor. But it was reasonably tender and the flaws weren’t severe. At $9, it was pricey, given the quality, portion size, and lack of table service.
4503 W. Lovers Ln.
Celebration may be the best-known, most-recommended home cooking spot in Dallas. Lunch or dinner, the sprawling ranch house rooms are packed with customers. Celebration was described as having one of the two best CFSs in Dallas in the November 2005 issue of Texas Monthly. (The other was the Mecca.) At $10.50 for lunch, Celebration’s CFS isn’t cheap. However, it is a meat-and-three entrée, with numerous above-average offerings for the “three.” The CFS is variable, but usually good. Past difficulties with tenderness have improved with a recent upgrade of the meat to sirloin, though mild contraction can leave a bit of a loose sock. Flavor of the beef is somewhat sporadic—good in some visits, bland and forgettable in others. The breading, however, is quite consistent. They know how to get that eye-catching golden brown. Over the years, I’ve been to Celebration more times than I can remember, including at least six times in the months in which I was preparing this report. At the outset of this search, I thought for sure Celebration would at least be in the Top 5. Sentiment tempts me to bump them up so they squeak into the Top 10. But looking at their CFS coldly and honestly, I can’t say that I think it’s better than those in the coming entries.
BUBBA’S COOKS COUNTRY: Yes, this Park Cities favorite makes a fine CFS. But it’s the homemade rolls and Texas honey we keep coming back for.
6617 Hillcrest Ave.
The Butter Rule: if they don’t care enough to put real butter on the table, you can rest assured that they won’t be taking any greater care back in the kitchen. For a few years now, Bubba’s has been offering Plugrá (which has about 2.5 percent higher butter fat content than most American butters that scrape by at the USDA minimum of 80 percent). Although there are richer butters out there, Plugrá is a very good butter (with some cachet among foodies), and I don’t see any restaurants in the Dallas area offering anything better. The same care and attention to detail appear in the honey and sorghum on the tables. First of all, where else in Dallas do you find sorghum to mix with your butter? And, instead of the watery, thin-tasting clover honey you get at most restaurants, Bubba’s offers a delightfully complex Texas wildflower honey. Then you have the rolls, coming in fresh batches out of the oven during the lunch rush. Delicious. Bubba’s chicken-fried steak is variable, but usually good. The two smallish steaks are nicely fried and have very good flavor. But on this visit, as in some prior experiences there, the meat had a bit too much chew to it. Despite the occasional inadequate tenderness, it’s still a pretty good chicken-fried steak. And when you can get one that’s properly tenderized, it can rival the CFS at Bubba’s suburban sister restaurant, Babe’s.
2911 Routh St.
As far as I’ve been able to tell, Perry’s is the only upscale steakhouse in Dallas that bothers to put a chicken-fried steak on its menu. I wish more steakhouses would throw their hat in the CFS ring. Quality beef and a little attention to detail could produce some masterpieces. The base for Perry’s chicken-fried steak is wet-aged, USDA Prime ribeye. In terms of flavor of the underlying meat, it’s among the best in this series. The meat was fork tender. Breading was crisp above and below and not too greasy. The first time I had Perry’s CFS, I was certain it would rank highly, perhaps even taking the top spot in the end. Perry’s has one of the more interesting gravies I’ve tasted, and among the richest. But it also has an unusually intense sweetness and what tastes like a bit of thyme. A little of this gravy goes a long way, so it’s best to keep it on the side (as with all gravies).
My second and third visits to Perry’s were also very satisfying. Then, on the fourth, I encountered an atrocity. A ribeye is a rich cut that only works as a CFS if the breading is appropriately light and crisp. If the breading is soggy or greasy, it’s a leaden mess. That’s exactly what this was. But every restaurant can have an off day, which is why I determined to visit the Top 10 candidates multiple times to evaluate consistency.
Next time was not quite as bad as the preceding visit, but this CFS was too greasy to be enjoyable. A subsequent visit was comparably unsatisfying.
Perry’s presents a frustrating inconsistency. If all the CFSs I had there were as good as the first few, the restaurant probably would have ranked No. 3. If all were as poor as the last few, it’d be closer to No. 23. Perry’s is capable of turning out a mean chicken-fried steak. But with one of the highest price tags in this series (at $16), consistency should be rock solid.
9. Dixie House
6400 Gaston Ave.
Dixie House was yet another of Gene Street’s creations. At some point in the past, it seems to have operated separately from Street’s other concepts. Now, however, it’s distinguishable from a Black-eyed Pea in name only. The format and menu are identical, though there are some remnants of a more “neighborhood” identity. The large chicken-fried steak (even as a lunch portion) was above average. The meat was flavorful and tender. The breading, though crisp and not greasy, was too thick, leaving a floury-tasting undercoat in some visits. Still, it was easily the best chicken-fried steak I tried east of Central Expressway.
8. Old Mill Inn
3611 Grand Ave.
The Old Mill Inn is open year round within Fair Park, though the unusual location contributes to slow lunch traffic. (Closed for dinner except for Fridays and Saturdays during Dallas Summer Musicals.) Coming in the front door, one is immediately confronted with an enormous hot dog statue. It’s a strange sight—a tennis-shoe-wearing encased meat, swaddled in an American flag napkin, squirting ketchup on himself. As for the food, the chicken-fried steak (priced on the high side at 10 bucks) has been variable. In my initial visits, it was quite good. Tender, flavorful meat. Thin, crisp breading, with some loose sockiness but no real contraction to the meat. In return visits, the meat was a little blander and the sock a little looser. On a good day, a solid CFS.
7. Black-eyed Pea
3857 Cedar Springs Rd.
When asked about the birth of Black-eyed Pea in a 1999 D Magazine article, Gene Street said, “There was no place in Dallas at that time where you could get a chicken-fried steak and hard liquor. In fact, I didn’t think there was any place in Dallas where you could get a good chicken-fried steak, period, and I thought somebody could prosper if they filled that need.” Anyone who characterizes a good chicken-fried steak as a “need” is my kind of guy. Though I’ve been to a number of locations of the chain before and during the preparation of these reports, I focused on the original location on Cedar Springs. Meat was consistently tender and usually flavorful. Breading was consistently crisp and neither excessively greasy nor overcooked. Quality was even in lunch portions, dinner portions, and the super-sized version. In some visits, the CFS was a solid B, while in others it dropped down to a B- or C+. The lower scores weren’t necessarily due to affirmative flaws in the CFSs, but rather an occasionally bland, generic taste. On the whole, though, Black-eyed Pea makes a pretty good chicken-fried steak. (I realize that some might be troubled by the fact that a common chain places so highly in the rankings. All I can say is that I call them like I see them.)
6. Snookie’s Bar & Grill
3604 Oak Lawn Ave.
In the D Magazine interview referenced above, Street said, “When we sold the Black-eyed Pea, the British included a simple non-compete. For two years, I couldn’t sell any chicken-fried steaks.” Street not only outlasted the British purchasers, he also passed on his secrets to his sons. Snookie’s is Dace and Gene Jr.’s baby. Food appears to be a sideline to the bar at Snookie’s, but it’s actually pretty good. The chicken-fried steak usually has good-flavored, crisp breading that’s not too thick. On some visits, the meat was slightly tough or bland. Most times, tenderness and flavor were fine. It would be nice to see an additional side added to the plate, given the price. Value quibble aside, Snookie’s does a fine chicken-fried steak.
5. Two Rows
5500 Greenville Ave.
Two Rows is a mini-chain of micro-brew pubs in Dallas and Houston. Years ago, the menu boasted that their CFS was guaranteed to be the best you’ve ever had. Now they’ve gone to the more modest designation of the dish as a “signature menu item.” I’m conflicted about the CFS. The meat, tenderloin, is always fork tender and flavorful. Two Rows is consistently among the top tier on those points. And the breading looks good: almost always crisp, not too greasy, with an attractive golden brown color. The problem is that it doesn’t always taste as good as it looks. It may be the oil. I don’t know if it’s bad oil, old oil, or what, but there’s often a heavy, residual taste that grows more distracting the more you eat. The batter also has a pronounced
flavor—strong, not entirely unpleasant— that I can’t put my finger on. I’ve suspected beer and, when I’ve asked waiters, have gotten conflicting answers. As it stands, the CFS is usually pretty good (and very good, on the right day). But with a little more attention to the cooking oil and perhaps some experimentation to dial back and refine the batter’s distinctive flavor, they could easily move higher in the rankings.
4. Hoffbrau Steaks
311 N. Market St.
Hoffbrau is another mini-chain, with locations in the West End, Haltom City, Fort Worth, and Amarillo. Though the focus is straight-ahead steaks, the menu does have a very respectable CFS. The choice of sirloin pays off in above-average flavor. The meat has been adequately tenderized in almost every visit—maybe not always fork-tender, but never requiring much effort to cut through with a knife. Breading is occasionally greasy but almost always crisp and flavorful except in a couple of visits where there was a noticeable “old oil” taste. One excellent touch is the decision to plate the CFS on top of a slice of Texas toast. Unlike the impractical “CFS over mashed potatoes” plating I’ve encountered (and consistently complained about), this approach works. The toast keeps the hot CFS off the plate, so steam doesn’t get trapped between breading and plate (producing sogginess). The toast wicks away any lingering grease on the bottom of the CFS, which keeps it crisper, not to mention improving the flavor of the toast.
3. Lucky’s Cafe
3531 Oak Lawn Ave.
Gene Street strikes again. Of all the places in which Street has had a hand, Lucky’s Cafe has consistently been the best for CFS. It may’ve been opened with franchising dreams, but it’s still stamped with the individuality of the surrounding community. Made with sirloin, the chicken-fried steak is served in a large portion, with above-average flavor. The meat might actually fall a little behind that of Nos. 4 and 5, but the breading gives Lucky’s an edge. It can occasionally succumb to loose sockiness, but the remarkably consistent breading is never overly greasy, never soft, never over-seasoned and rarely under-seasoned. No major flaws.
2. AllGood Café
2934 Main St.
AllGood Café strives to be a little pocket of Austin in the city of Dallas. The Deep Ellum restaurant regularly hosts local and regional musical talent, and posters for the acts line the walls. They make efforts to support local food purveyors, including The Mozzarella Company, Rudolph’s Market, Jimmy’s Food Store, and Empire Baking Company. The chicken-fried steak has been consistently good. They use well-tenderized tenderloin for the CFS, which also adds above-average flavor and a pleasant texture. Breading is thin and exceptionally crisp, often to the point of brittleness. Coupled with occasional mild loose-sockiness, that very crispiness can make it hard to keep everything together. But the breading tastes so good that it’s a flavorful, textural delight to sweep up loose bits of crust into a bite of mashed potatoes. Though there have been some modest bobbles in a couple of visits (e.g., slightly loose sock or too much greasiness), they’re the exception. Most
of the time, AllGood Cafe’s chicken-fried steak is an unqualified pleasure.
Ozona can boast two bests: chicken-fried steak and outdoor patio.
Ozona Grill & Bar
4615 Greenville Ave.
Ozona stakes its claim right off the bat, using top butt (from the sirloin). But there’s more. They enhance the cut’s natural tenderness mechanically, producing a tender chicken-fried steak almost every time. The payoff is magnificent, and it comes in the flavor. Almost every CFS I’ve had at Ozona has been pleasantly robust and beefy. In fact, based solely on the flavor quality of the beef, Ozona is the best of the 70-plus restaurants I’ve visited for chicken-fried steak in the past year. The breading is always crisp and well seasoned, not upstaging the flavor of the beef, nor getting lost in the background. The sweet, mildly peppery cream gravy goes great with the beef and breading, but is unnecessary to enjoyment of the dish. Did I mention the price? At $6.95 for the lunch portion and $9.50 for dinner, Ozona’s chicken-fried steak is actually slightly below the average price for CFS in Dallas. Tender, flavorful meat. Crisp, well-seasoned crust. Great garlic mashed potatoes and spinach side salad. Consistent performance. Ozona’s chicken-fried steak is the best in Dallas.
Chicken-fried steak’s origins are somewhat murky. The first published recipe for “chicken-fried steak” appeared around 1950, though the dish turned up in Texas restaurants much earlier. Though Texans weren’t the first to come up with the idea of pounding meat flat, breading/battering, and frying it, the direction we’ve taken the technique results in a dish that’s meaningfully different from its Old World predecessors. Even the least-discriminating diner can tell a chicken-fried steak from Wiener schnitzel or costoletta alla Milanese. Below are the qualities of a solid Texas CFS meal, and two fatal flaws you’ll often find in sub-par chicken-fried steaks.
Loose sockiness: This term doesn’t appear in the OED, but basically what we’re talking about is the result of meat contracting in the cooking process and leaving the breading behind. A loose sock pretty much assures that you’re getting a real meat, “battered to order” CFS (and not the dreaded frozen patty). But since the contraction that creates the looseness is usually a consequence of inadequately tenderized meat, it often means your jaws are in for a workout. The loose sock also poses a couple of practical problems. First, the breading falls easily from the meat, making it hard to hold it all together. Second, you’re left with a lot of meatless breading around the edges; and if the breading is anything less than exemplary, it’s no pleasure to eat on its own. In short, loose sockiness is a flaw. Could be a major flaw, could be minor, depending on the severity and the outcome.
There are five things to consider when preparing a traditional chicken-fried steak.
1. The choice of meat is important. Instead of veal or pork, chicken-fried steak traditionally relies on beef (often from the round).
2. Chicken-fried steak is typically dredged in flour and battered (or sometimes breaded with cracker crumbs), rather than being coated with breadcrumbs (with or without a hard, grated cheese).
3. CFS is usually fried rather than lightly sautéed. Pan-frying—an entirely appropriate and, some would argue, preferable cooking method for chicken-fried steak—falls in a gray area between deep-frying and the gentle sautéing employed on some of CFS’s elder cousins.
4. CFS is typically accompanied by cream gravy. Recipes for cream gravy vary, though all are basically pepped up béchamel. You won’t see anything like that on a Wiener schnitzel.
5. Finally, chicken-fried steak shares a plate with regional side dishes that further set it apart. Mashed potatoes are almost always on board. Fried okra, black-eyed peas, green beans, Texas toast, biscuits, corn (on or off the cob), greens (e.g., mustard or collard), and summer squash (or squash casserole) also make frequent appearances. And let’s not forget grits, when CFS shows up for breakfast.
Frozen Patty Syndrome (FPS)
There are nine signs that suggest a frozen patty was used:
• perfectly consistent pebbled texture
• uniform thickness
• no asymmetry between upper and lower sides of the patty
• ultra-thin meat with inconsistent grain, no grain, or jigsaw-assembled pieces
• near impossibility of separating meat from breading
• freezer-burn odor
• peculiar crunch of the breading when bitten into
• that flavor
• a quasi-chemical je ne sais quoi that sets the teeth on edge and lingers on the palate far too long
|Didn’t Make the Cut
[ Nos. 51-26 ]
51. Norma’s Café
|42. Nick’s Café
1733 Greenville Ave.
41. Metro Diner
3309 Gaston Ave.
40. The String Bean
7879 Spring Valley Rd.,
39. Dunston’s Prime Steakhouse
8526 Harry Hines Blvd.
38. Gold Rush Café
1913 Skillman St.
37. Y.O. Ranch Steakhouse
702 Ross Ave.
36. Garden Tea Room
5333 Forest Ln.
35. Texas Land & Cattle Steak House 3130 Lemmon Ave.
|34. Oasis Café
5945 Greenville Ave.
33. Walt Garrison Rodeo Bar & Grill
1321 Commerce St.
32. Angry Dog
2726 Commerce St.
31. Catalina Room
4218 Lemmon Ave.
7567 Greenville Ave.
29. The Mecca
10422 Harry Hines Blvd.
28. Mama’s Daughters’ Diner
2014 Irving Blvd.
27. Vern’s Place
3600 Main St.
26. Trail Dust Steak House 10841 Composite Dr.
The Search for Chicken-Fried Steak: Methodology
I ate a lot of chicken-fried steaks. I only went to places within the Dallas city limits. I took descriptive notes and photos. When I found a likely prospect, I made repeat visits to gauge consistency. When I found a CFS that I felt, for whatever reason, didn’t seem to be at its best, I returned to make sure I hadn’t caught it on an off day. After I hit 51, I returned to the top 10. I’ve been to each of them at least five times over the course of the past months (and often 10 or more times), refining the rankings. If I were to keep going back, the rankings would likely change in some respects. That’s the nature of food criticism.