When I was 18, I had a job mapping power lines, on foot, across Texas. During that walking tour from Texarkana to Amarillo, Paris to Corsicana, I had lunch in hundreds of cafés, some in towns so small the restaurant was just somebody’s porch. Everyone had a chicken-fried steak special on the menu, and invariably I ordered it. I can’t recall a single proprietor who didn’t swear it was “the best damn chicken-fried steak in the whole durn state.”
Where the dish actually originated is another matter. “A lot of towns claim to be the birthplace of chicken-fried steak,” said Mark Hughes, Chamber of Commerce Chairman of Lamesa, which lies about an hour south of Lubbock in West Texas. “But we had the best story. Governor Rick Perry said so.”
Hughes was talking to me on the last weekend of April 2012, during the second annual Chicken-Fried Steak Festival at the unexpectedly bucolic Forrest Park in Lamesa (pronounced la-MEE-sa). Eighty years ago or so, he said, a waitress at Ethel’s Home Cooking, a popular café in town, turned in a ticket for two dishes, “chicken, fried steak.” Out of sublime, inspired incompetence, the cook combined the two orders, and chicken- fried steak was born.
Governor Perry did more than simply agree with Lamesa’s origin claim. In 2011 he signed legislation affirming it. That was a gutsy move on the governor’s part. After all, it may be argued that CFS—typically accompanied by white gravy, mashed potatoes, canned green beans, and a tall glass of sweet iced tea—is the State Lunch.
As Hughes and I chatted, the CFS Festival got into full swing: Vendors ringed the edge of the tree-lined meadow, and there was the requisite motorcycle rally in the community center parking lot, as well as a rodeo at the nearby fairgrounds. However, all other activity paled in comparison to the competition among 14 teams and individuals in the Chicken-Fried Steak Cook-Off.
Starting at precisely 11 a.m. (in the Texan sense of “precisely,” give or take a quarter hour or so), contestants would have two hours to prepare two chicken-fried steaks for the judges: one steak for preliminary judging, and one for the finals. I realized then that the perfect chicken-fried steak, hot and sizzling right out of the skillet, was not going to take home the trophy. The ideal here was to create a balance of spices, tender meat, and flaky crust resilient enough to be delicious after sitting around on a paper plate for a while. It would have to be an uber chicken-fried steak.
Behind a massive RV next to a broad, leafy tree I found Mayor Dave Nix and city councilmember Greg Hughes. They were working a stripped-down industrial grill powered by a portable propane tank. Hughes was frying up an impressive pile of bacon in a skillet. “Based on last year’s winner, bacon grease is the key to victory,” he said. His Honor the Mayor concurred: “Everything goes better with bacon.” Nearby stood a wiry local ranch hand, introduced as Mr. Roberts, who competes almost every weekend in chuck-wagon and barbecue contests. “This is West Texas, so it’s best to stay traditional and simple,” he said. “Dry rub it with spices, dip it in flour, and fry it in bacon grease. That’s what’s gonna win this competition.”
Cheryl Valentine, a local cook-off veteran who dredged her steaks in evaporated milk and seasoned flour, then deep-fried them in lard, advocated an over-the-top approach. “You can’t make it like you do at home,” she said, a deeply competitive glint in her eye. “The judges don’t take but one bite, so it’s got to be really rich and flavorful.”
Not far away, Jamie Garcia and his onetime high school mixed-doubles tennis partner, Cami Kenney, who left Lamesa to become a model in New York, had reunited for the competition, despite the fact that neither had ever made a chicken-fried steak. It was Cami’s idea to use healthy ingredients—coconut oil and coconut milk. Jamie had gone out that morning and bought all their cooking gear, and he insisted to Cami that they fry up the steaks with green chilies. Their recipe was clearly outside the box—and just as clearly doomed.
The last few minutes of the cook-off was like an episode of the Food Network TV show Chopped; competitors frantically frying up one last effort before the horn sounded.
A couple of hours later, after the judges had done their work and the winner was announced, it was a hard blow to the proud and bold boosters of Lamesa. The man taking home the black cast-iron skillet trophy was Doug Beasley of Houston, who had driven 500 miles and arrived only that morning. An enthusiastic cook-off amateur whose dream is to appear on Gordon Ramsay’s TV show Hell’s Kitchen, Beasley entered the contest in an attempt to match the perfection achieved at Goodson’s Cafe of Tomball (about 10 miles northwest of Houston), which advertises itself as “Home of the Best Chicken-Fried Steak in Texas.” He confided after the awards ceremony that in addition to mixing panko bread crumbs with his flour, a key to his preparation was using room-temperature eggs and buttermilk to soak the meat prior to flouring. Was this multigenerational East Texas wisdom? “Naw,” he said, bashfully. “I learned it last week on the Cooking Channel.” A
WHERE TO FIND THE BEST CHICKEN-FRIED STEAK IN WEST TEXAS
The Barn Door Steakhouse
Since 1963, the Barn Door Steakhouse has been beloved in West Texas for the fresh homemade bread and huge block of Wisconsin cheddar that comes to your table gratis in the evenings. However, the cooks here are equally renowned for their chicken-fried steak, a 6½-ounce cube steak dipped in buttermilk, dredged in seasoned flour, and fried on the grill, according to owner Roy Gillean, “like the cowboys did it.” Another bonus: You can choose two of the menu’s 16 side orders to accompany your CFS, including mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, fried okra, two cheese enchiladas, and the “stack of hay,” the Barn Door’s thinly sliced, floured, and deep-fried onions. Gillean said last year he and other members of the Texas Restaurant Association convinced Governor Perry to make October 26 Chicken-Fried Steak Day in Texas. It is unclear whether the city elders of Lamesa were consulted on the issue. 2140 Andrews Hwy., Odessa, (432) 337-4142
A bit off the beaten path, the Stockyards Café is located on the north end of the Amarillo stockyard, where the Monday cattle auctions are still well attended by working cowboys, mainly from the Texas panhandle. The Stockyard is so famous for its hand-breaded chicken-fried steak that Man v. Food’s Adam Richman featured it in the first episode of his show. The 8-ounce CFS is put through a tenderizing machine and seasoned with salt and pepper before it is marinated in egg and buttermilk, dipped in plain flour, and fried on a griddle in clarified butter. The gut-busting lunch goes for a mere $8.25 with complimentary cobbler or banana pudding. As co-owner Vicky Youngblood said of the entire meal, “It’s about as close as you’re gonna get to the way Grandma made it.” 101 S. Manhattan St., Amarillo, (806) 392-9411
“I have every employee who comes in here sign a nondisclosure agreement when it comes to our recipes,” says Mary Tretter, and that certainly applies to her café’s chicken-fried steak, which draws enthusiastic diners from Abilene to the west and Dallas-Fort Worth and beyond to the east. She would only speak in generalities about the top-quality meat she uses and the hand breading that goes into her version. But she did admit that she has always has one employee dedicated to making sure every CFS that goes out of the kitchen from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week, is perfect. Though her small, medium, and large plates seem pricey ($10.50, $14.00, and $16.50, respectively) for a town of 650 people, she proudly pointed out that her portions are so huge that everyone leaves fully satisfied. Discussing her famous 1½-pound burger, she said, “I had an old boy come in today, said he wanted a double. I thought to myself, ‘You outta your mind?’” 119 Grant Ave., Strawn, (254) 672-5741
Based on a recipe by Doug Beasley
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1 1/3 cups flour
1/2 tbsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp granulated garlic
1 tbsp salt
3/4 tsp white pepper
3 tbsp black pepper
6 to 8 eggs, room temperature
1 quart buttermilk, room temperature
6 8-ounce sirloin steaks
3 3/4 pounds lard
1. Combine all the dry ingredients, mix well in a large stainless-steel bowl.
2. Break the eggs into another bowl and whisk for several minutes.
3. Add the buttermilk to the eggs and mix thoroughly.
4. Lay the steaks in a shallow baking dish and pour the egg and buttermilk mixture over them. Let the steaks marinate for one hour.
5. Preheat a large skillet, add the lard, and heat it until it is crackling hot but not smoking.
6. Take the steaks, one at a time, and press them firmly into the dry mixture—one side, then the other—until the meat is thoroughly coated.
7. Drop the steaks into the skillet and cook until golden brown on both sides, approximately five minutes.
8. Serve with mashed potatoes and white gravy.
Photos by Jody Horton. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.