Robb Walsh wrote a great article in yesterday's Houston Press on chicken fried steak. In it, he proposes something like a unified field theory for CFS. He makes sense of a question that I have been pondering for the last year:
How could anyone say that Mary's Cafe in Strawn, Texas has the best CFS in Texas?
Last year, I researched the question of who made Texas's best CFS. A lot of people on the web said that it is made by Mary's Cafe in Strawn, which lies midway between Fort Worth and Abilene, just off Interstate 20. So I made a pilgrimage to Strawn.
When I got there, Mary's CFS just seemed all wrong. The breading was thick, not crispy, and tasted like it had been burned a bit in the pan. Although the peppery flavor was good, I had a serious problem with the doughy consistency of the steak. As I have said here before, my perfect CFS is a marriage of (1) tender, thin meat with (2) a crispy, flavorful crust, plus (3) cream gravy that complements, but does not overwhelm, the flavor of the meat. A bad crust just throws everything else off.
I was so disappointed by my CFS pilgrimage to Strawn that I didn't even write a post about it. For weeks, I pondered: What went wrong? Was it just a bad day? Or did I just not get it?
Apparently, I just didn't get it. Walsh explains that Mary's serves the West Texas "panfried" version of the CFS, which is distinctly different from the crispy East Texas version. Walsh says that West Texans think the East Texas version "with its undulations and flakes, to be indulgent, overwrought and sinfully rich."
I prefer my "undulations and flakes." My preference makes sense. The East Texas version was the kind made by my grandma. All of my ancestors came to East Texas -- mostly in the Piney Woods -- between 1850 and 1900. That makes me a 5th or 6th generation East Texan. And it makes me more inclined to like the East Texan version of the CFS.
Walsh has helped me see that Mary's CFS is not bad. It is just pursuing a completely different ideal.
And its not my fault that I prefer the crispy versions of the CFS I get at Houston restaurants like Avenue Grill, Lankford Grocery, and even Prince's Hamburgers.
It's my East Texas genes.