Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Chicken Fried Steak Manifesto

Even though I'm from Texas and my heart will always reside there, my actual address is often elsewhere these days.  As a result, I find I have very limited options in the chicken fried steak department.  I don't want to insult anybody, but before I continue, I feel I should explain the CFS for the bold cultural anthropologist who has somehow stumbled upon this blog despite not knowing from where the title arose.  In short, it's tenderized cube steak coated with flour, milk, and egg and your choice of spices and covered in cream gravy.  Legend has it that the German immigrants to Texas Hill Country adapted the dish from their native schnitzels, but no one really knows for sure.

Now I've spent most of my life in Texas, and when I get a good craving for chicken fried steak, I certainly possess the necessary skills to whip some up myself (along with homemade mashed potatoes,natch), but sometimes I just want to take the easy route and have one arrive at my table without me having to lift a finger.  The only problem it that I live in California at the moment.  (I'm stationed at a Northern California military base, so I'm able to keep my Texan cred in the land of granola eating hippies.)  My most recent dining experience there when something like this:

    Me: How's the chicken fried steak here?
    Waitress: It's really good!
    Me: Where's it made?
    Waitress: (confused) They cook it in the kitchen when you order it...
    Me: I assumed that much, but when they cook it do they pull it out of a bag and drop it in a deep fryer or do they take a piece of meat out of the refrigerator and start preparing it?
    Waitress: (hopefully) The gravy's made from scratch!

A few minutes later, she brought me a breaded meat patty that had clearly been living in the freezer until moments before and it was covered in bland sausage gravy.  The best I can say about it was that it was edible.  When the waitress came back by, I made sure she knew not to suggest the CFS to anyone claiming Texas in the future.  If I had my way, they'd put in on the menu:

    Country Fried Steak:  Frozen breaded beef patty deep fried and served with sausage gravy.  NOT FOR TEXANS!

You see, I think there should be a standard that a chicken fried steak must meet to call itself that.  Anything else can use the "country fried" label and come with the "not for Texans" advisory.

Did I mention that this was on a first date that had been previously going rather well?  I haven't heard from him since.  No big loss.  I need a man who has strong feelings about beef.  This (presumably native) Californian had a salad.

Well, this week I've been in Texas so one of my mandatory stops had to be for a Good Texas Chicken Fried Steak.  Sadly, my usual go-to place has closed down, so I was forced to facebook for suggestions from my fellow Texans.  Of course most of the suggestions were on the other side of town. That might not be a big deal in a place like Austin, but in Houston it could mean an hour or more drive each way.  A friend and I happened to be near Tomball, where we had been assured we would find chicken fried steak to live up to our expectations.  After spending a considerable amount of time driving up and down 249, we stopped at a pawn shop to look at handguns and see if the locals could point us in the right direction.  Sadly they could not and that's how we wound up in the parking lot of a Texas Land & Cattle on FM 1960.

    Eli (my platonic life mate):  Let's just try this place. My room mate says it has great chicken fried steak.
    Me:  You forget that I've met your room mate and he clearly has never met a fried meat that he doesn't like.  Besides, I've been burned before by the promise of a good chicken fried steak and been sadly disappointed.  It's an insult to Texas to call a breaded frozen patty a 'chicken fried steak.'  A chicken fried steak is made fresh with flour, eggs, and milk!  The gravy should be made with the drippings from the steak itself, not the sad remnants of breakfast!  And those pre-formed beef patties in a precice oblong shape?  Unacceptable!  They should be made with tenderized cube steak!  I did not travel 1600 miles from California for that!  The stars at night are big and bright and I'm deep in the heart of Texas and want a Real Texas Chicken Fried Steak!  I don't defend my country to come home and eat the same sad excuse for chicken fried steak that I get in a tent in Afghanistan!
    Eli:  Are you finished?
    Me:  For now, but I'm not sitting down until I have the assurance of the staff that they don't serve frozen chicken fried steaks.
    Eli:  Will they get the same delightful rant you just gave me.
    Me:  Quite possibly.  And it's a manifesto.
As it turned out, the host was quite accomodating and not only assured me that the steaks were prepared from scratch on site, but also promised I wouldn't pay if they didn't meet my expectations.  He then even offered to let me interview another patron who had just been served her own chicken fried steak!  I almost declined when I found out the patron in question was from San Francisco, but the steak did look good, so I went ahead and ordered one.

Final verdict:  It was not the best chicken fried steak in Texas, but is probably better than any in California.  Definitely the best I've had in the past five years except for when I've made my own.

Rule #1:  Do not eat chicken fried steak west of the Rio Grande or north of the Mason-Dixon Line unless prepared by someone of Southern upbringing.

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