In Texas, chicken fried steak isn’t just food, it’s religion: take a flawed piece of meat, hammer it with a tenderizer until it’s given up on the possibility of mercy, then build back up its spirit by bathing it in buttermilk before showing it the glory of a new, batter-fried life and finally asking it to accept the redemptive grace of white gravy.
The best of the born-again achieve sainthood. True believers will drive hundreds of miles for a legendary chicken fried steak, to towns like Sonora, Quitaque, and Mexia, to name three favorites from a sprawling Facebook chain I started on the subject. There are false prophets as well -- if you’re ever driving through Texas and see a billboard quoting an unattributed source proclaiming some restaurant as having “The Best Chicken Fried Steak In The World”, don’t stop.
"Chicken and waffles? That's just a fancy pancake." - Eddie Wilson, Threadgill's
Sadly for Texpats like myself, this meaty morality tale hasn’t spread nationwide the way other regional comfort foods like chicken & waffles have. It’s not just chicken fried steak’s absence that’s painful; it’s the way that it’s mocked as a redneck abomination any time a Texan complains about not being able to find it in his new home. Bitch to your friends that “There’s no good Tex-Mex up here,” and they’ll say, “You’re just stuck up, there are some great Mexican restaurants up here.” And while they’re clearly wrong (starting with the fact that they don’t know the difference between Tex-Mex and Mexican food), at least they’re only insulting you, not the cuisine. Moan about the lack of chicken fried steak, and you’ll get “Why would anybody eat that?”.
Because the world needs chicken fried steak now more than ever, I decided to round up opinions from both Texans and non-Texans on why chicken fried steak hasn’t become a thing anywhere north of Oklahoma. Then I proceeded to refute those rationales point-by-point, leaving naysayers with no ground to stand on, except of course in the comments section, where there’s always ground to stand on. Here we go.
Reason 1: People don’t understand what it is
“I'd eat my own leg off the bone if it was fried, but I still don't know what a chicken fried steak is. The name is too confusing.” That's from a non-Texan, but many Texans agreed with the sentiment; the only reason we’re not just as confused is that, as children, we were introduced to chicken fried steak long before we started caring whether the names of anything made sense.
Honestly, I think the name makes perfect enough sense. You take a steak, and you batter & fry it in a manner similar to fried chicken. The probable reason it’s not simply called “fried steak” is two-fold:
Fried chicken gained popularity in America well before Austrian and German immigrants started batter-frying beef instead of the veal they’d traditionally used for schnitzel. Fried chicken got there first, won the name game, and demanded tribute from chicken fried steak.
Simply calling it “fried steak” wouldn’t accurately describe it. Frying doesn’t necessitate battering -- all “fried” means is that the steak is cooked in a pan at lower heat than if it were sauteed. When you think about it, if there’s any senselessness here, the blame lies with the term “fried chicken”, which is as responsible as any dish for conflating battering with frying. And yet no one questions how in chicken’s case a verb that implies one action came to imply two.
"'Chicken fried' can be a whole section of the menu in Texas. Chicken fried chicken, oysters, and even brisket are great, but taking a cheap cut and elevating it with a crispy crust and a peppery gravy (on the side, please) is more satisfying." Daniel Vaughn, The BBQ Snob
There are of course more apocryphal origin stories, the most famous being that, in 1911, one Jimmy Don Perkins, a short-order cook at Ethel's Home Cooking in Lamesa, missed the comma in an order for “chicken, fried steak,” shrugged his shoulders at the odd request, then dipped a steak in fried chicken batter, thereby inventing “chicken fried steak”. If Jimmy Don Perkins didn’t struggle to comprehend a term that didn’t even exist yet, how can anyone claim that it causes them inordinate confusion now? [Whether or not this story is true, Lamesa has an annual festival honoring the accomplishment, so it’s true enough.]
Whichever version’s more accurate, this is not a complex etymology -- if you think it is, the idea of “pickled cauliflower” must blow your mind (and yet your confoundedness probably wouldn’t stop you from eating the stuff...).
Reason 2: It’s too unhealthy
First off, it’s not that much unhealthier than a regular old steak. As my dad, who’s been practicing medicine longer than he’ll permit me to tell you, said, “You’re already eating red meat filled with saturated fats, hormones, and antibiotics, not to mention contributing to global warming thanks to the massive amount of methane cattle produce. If you're helping to end the earth as we know it, what's a few extra carbs and trans fats going to hurt?".
Second off, you’re starting off with a very thin, relatively fat-light cut (more on that later). Take the fry out of the equation, and you’re actually winning vs a thick, fattier steak (and dominating vs the marbled majesty of kobe beef).
You could argue that any Texan claiming chicken fried steak is "not that bad for you" is biased by his state's historic infatuation with gut-busting delights (as my Lufkin, TX buddy George pointed out, "When you come from an area that's willing to deep fry anything, fried steak almost sounds like health food."). But let's get current here: all Americans, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon, now live in country where maple bacon bourbon ice cream happens. When a New Yorker's shoving spoonfuls of maple bacon bourbon ice cream in his face, is he thinking to himself, “I am such a better person than those chicken fried steak-loving hillbillies down south,” or his he thinking, “Ohhhhhhh, this is so decadent, I’m a naughty, naughty boy!”? As much pork belly as this nation puts down its pie-hole, to hold chicken fried steak in special disregard just seems petty.
Reason 3: It’s gross
The two knuckleheads who said that are both from New Jersey, home of the pork roll. I’m not going to dignify them with a response. As for New Yorkers harboring the same sentiment...
"New Yorkers don't know what they're missing. If they did it would be on every self-respecting brunch menu in town." - Francine Cohen, Inside F&B
Reason 4: Frying steak makes no sense when steak is already so good
This isn’t steakhouse-quality meat. Most chicken fried steak is made with cube steak, a cut most people find substandard to say the least. A few years ago, during a sputtering cube steak revival driven by a crappy economy, Bill Niman of Niman Ranch told the New York Times he tried making a non-battered cube steak for old times’ sake -- and ended up feeding it to his dogs.
"Chicken Fried Steak has always been essential to Texas. It's not trendy, it's a meal that was created to make sure that 'unusable cuts' get used." - Tim Love, Lonesome Dove Western Bistro
Reason 5: Too many people have a bad first experience
You can cut a great chicken fried steak with your fork and never bother picking up your knife. But not all chicken-fried steaks are great. Paul Kirschbaum, who made the chicken fried steak you’ve been staring at with either lust or fear the past few minutes, used to run a restaurant in Poteet, TX, and’s now the chef at Manhattan’s Hog Pit (one of the few places in NYC to get your CFS fix). He says the chief culprits are using meat that’s too low quality; using meat with no fat in it whatsoever; neglecting to marinate; and over-frying, all of which can cause the steak to shrivel into a leathery hockey puck inside the batter.
But a bad first experience is a poor excuse to give up entirely on something others swear by. Someone whose first regular steak was nothing but gristle would be a fool to let that keep him away from a mecca like Peter Luger. Same goes for anyone whose first chicken fried steak was at a Grandy’s, the Denny's of home cookin'. Says my friend Kristin, “If everyone had a chicken fried steak slung at them at 3am by Billy (God rest her beehive-headed soul) at The Lakewood Cafe we wouldn't need all this debate.” The Lakewood Cafe’s sadly no more, but you get the point.
Reason 6: It’s a lot harder to make than you’d think
That's absolutely true, but there's a difference between "harder than you'd think" and "extremely difficult". If you’re a trained chef, and you can fry a chicken, you can chicken-fry a steak. Yes if you go into it not respecting the recipe you can screw up everything from the steps Chef Kirschbaum mentions above, to the all-important gravy, which some wannabe down-homers assume can be brown (the gravy cannot be brown).
But chicken fried steak isn't nearly as hard to make as barbecue, and barbecue is everywhere -- sometimes it'll make you think you're back in Texas (or North Carolina, Memphis, etc...), and sometimes it's terrible, but the point is people are at least trying. Very few people are trying to make chicken fried steak. If they put an earnest effort into it they'd have an easier path to success than the nouveau BBQ crowd.
Reason 7: Size matters
A friend from Connecticut made the excellent point that even someone who’s not afraid of freakishly unhealthy foods would be far more likely to order fried chicken simply because a chicken fried steak sounds like too much freakish unhealthiness. Again, though, chicken fried steak is pounded flat; it’s filling enough that you might not want to go dancing after, but you’re not getting a fried, 2” thick rib eye. All things being equal, it’s not much more filling than a ½-pound burger.
(At least not ‘til you add in the mashed potatoes, your choice of 2nd classic side, and a roll/cornbread. Also, be sure to mix everything together, because every day is Thanksgiving when you’re eating chicken fried steak.).
"Life would be grand if our favorite southern dish was as popular as Chicken n' Waffles. We are not totally sure why Lays doesn't have a Chicken Fried Steak version of their potato chips." - Creed Ford, Ozona Grill
"Any carnivorous person who has spent a decent amount of time in Texas has enjoyed chicken fried steak." - Marc Glosserman, Hill Country Barbecue
Speaking of size: A few weeks ago on Monday Night Football, the Cowboys lost to the Team I Don’t Like Naming Regardless Of Politics Because I Hate That Franchise So Much. I went to watch the game at Hill Country Brooklyn, a butcher-paper barbecue spot owned by Marc Glosserman.
Marc is a DC native, and while that’s typically an unforgivable sin, his mom's from Texarkana, and his dad is from Lockhart, the Barbecue Capital of Texas. I’d emailed him for opinions on chicken-fried steak, and he reminisced about how his mom used to make it by request from-scratch on birthdays. When I showed up at his restaurant, he brought out a tray filled with a new offering he was experimenting with: chicken fried steak on a biscuit.
Everything's bigger in Texas, but that doesn't mean chicken fried steak can't travel light. Full-sized or hand-sized, America, however you want to make it, quit making excuses and just put it on your menu.
Epilogue: There Is Hope
"What the f*** is chicken fried steak? What? They do that?"
"Mmmmhmm, sounds yummy! Why isn't it a thing?"
"I don't know why there's not chicken fried more stuff."