Chances are you’ve eaten at a restaurant that Gene Street either owns or has owned. Once a long-haired bartender at J. Alfred’s, the bar he opened with partner Phil Cobb, Gene turned from restaurateur into a successful entrepreneur. His Consolidated Restaurant Operations now operates Cantina Laredo, El Chico, Good Eats, Cool River Cafe, III Forks, Lucky’s Cafe, and Silver Fox Steakhouse. And if you’re a carnivore, no doubt you’ve eaten Street’s signature dish: the chicken-fried steak, which he has traveled the world trying to convince other countries to try. It worked great in Britain. Vietnam? Not so much.
One great idea: that’s all I’ve had. Been on earth 69 years and had only one. That’s not true. If you know me, you know that I have what I consider to be a great idea approximately every 30 seconds. (Like turning the Old Church on Cole Avenue into a fondue house. Brilliant!) But on one occasion, in the spring of 1975, I had a truly great idea, and for a while, it seemed like everyone in Dallas agreed.
Phil Cobb and I were a couple of straight-up cats out of Squaresville: a shock absorber salesman (me) and a printing press salesman (Phil) who wanted to meet chicks and were willing to work at it. The Dallas Summer of Love lagged a few years behind the one in Haight-Ashbury, but at J. Alfred’s we were trying like heck to catch up. Sawdust on the floor, a cigar box for a register, copies of the Iconoclast, and Stoney Burns’ Buddy Magazine on the tables. One or two staff members may—may—have stepped out back to smoke some weed. (Free love, baby!)
On Sunday nights, our extremely single pals Billy Bob Harris and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Craig Morton, and a few well-chosen arm candies, would stop by and let me cook for them. J. Alfred’s was a sandwich-and-chips place, but for honored guests, I’d take out a cheap cut of round steak, beat it with a saucer until tender (just like my daddy, Snookie Street, had taught me), and dip it in a flour-egg-milk-salt-pepper concoction. I’d put some Crisco and lard in one of those skillets with a cord, plug it in, and fry up a superb chicken-fried steak. Maybe some mashed potatoes, but the chicken-fried steak was the star. The boys loved it. My mother Billye loved it. The only customer who didn’t love it was a slightly soused Bob Hope, but I think he may have thought something named chicken-fried steak should involve some chicken. Sorry, Bob.
It’s possible that on one or two occasions, I may have claimed that I invented chicken-fried steak. Well, didn’t I? No, actually that was probably a Hill Country cook who sampled the German immigrants’ Wiener Schnitzel in the 1800s and replaced expensive veal with common Texas steak. By 1974, you could order a CFS at Denny’s that looked on TV just like the one your mama made. But it tasted like tenderized plywood. One bite and you knew that meat had been frozen.
Now for my great idea. Remember: beyond Denny’s (a glorified truck stop), there were no casual dining chains in Dallas in 1975, not yet. It dawned on me that people wanted to eat real home cooking without staying home. And they wanted to drink while doing it. We’d do the shopping and the cooking; you’d enjoy a CFS with gravy, mashed potatoes, and green beans for $2.25, plus a cocktail or three. Plus a dish of peach cobbler. Plus you wouldn’t have to wash dishes when it was over.
We found a former Avalon Drug Store on Cedar Springs Road at a great price. No wonder: there were 75 hookers wandering up and down seedy Cedar Springs day and night, which had a tendency to scare away customers (ours, not theirs).
We took a name from a Ray Wylie Hubbard song and called it the Black-eyed Pea. It was like a home run on steroids, out of the park. After the first month, we paid all our bills (we didn’t consider the IRS and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to be priorities, a misconception that was soon corrected) and still had $10,000 left over. Holy moly.
From there on, it was one brainstorm after another. Forty-nine cent martinis. Staying open on New Year’s Day (unheard of for a mom-and-pop operation) to serve black-eyed peas and cornbread. We figured out we didn’t have to peel the potatoes before mashing them, at a labor cost savings of approximately $12 billion a year. People could not get enough chicken-fried food: okra, catfish, french fries, even chicken! No one had heard of cholesterol or trans fats or canola oil. If we had thought of chicken-fried rattlesnake, we coulda sold that, too.
Before we knew it, we were moguls of a restaurant empire that stretched from Florida to Colorado, and for a decade or two, chicken-fried steak was the national dish of Texas. And just when we thought it would never end—why else would we have bought a private airplane?—the wind changed. Suddenly, the entire restaurant smelling like bacon was no longer cool. Doctors and nurses from Parkland who loved the Cedar Springs Pea were ordering vegetable plates. Texas Monthly put me in its Hall of Shame, saying, “Just walking into a Black-eyed Pea is enough to clog your arteries.”
Phil and I sold our baby to a bunch of Brits for $49 million. T.G.I. Friday’s, Chili’s, Bennigan’s, and Houston’s swarmed over the trail we’d blazed and divvied up the territory we had once ruled. I look around today and see a tough economy, microwaveable dinner options, the popularity of diets, fruit shakes, and granola bars, and I thank the Lord I’m no longer in the restaurant biz.
But, man, it was fun.
Gene Street is currently involved with the Movie Tavern concept and Cheaters, the Dallas-based television production.