Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Best Chicken-Fried Steak

Over the years, I’ve been on my own personal quest for the best chicken-fried steak. To those of you who haven’t indulged in this culinary delight, all I can say is you haven’t lived! Every Texan knows is there is no chicken in chicken-fried steak. “Chicken-fried” is a term used to describe the cooking process. An inexpensive cut of round steak is tenderized, dipped in an egg and milk mixture, dredged through seasoned flour and then fried in drippings just like fried chicken.

It is estimated that 800,000 orders of Chicken-Fried Steak are served in Texas every day. According to the Lone Star Book of Records, the Chicken-Fried Steak was invented in 1911 by Jimmy Don Perkins, a cook in a small café in Lamesa, Texas, who misunderstood a customer’s order and battered a thin steak and deep-fried it in hot oil. Unfortunately, this oft-reported food fact is a complete fable. The precise origins of the dish are unclear, but many sources attribute it to German and Austrian immigrants to Texas in the nineteenth century who brought recipes from Europe to the United States, such as Weiner Schnitzel. Bandera, Texas also claims to be the birthplace of the chicken-fried steak.

Regardless of its origin, Chicken-Fried Steak is a Texas staple. You can always expect to find it served with a mound of mashed potatoes, green beans and white cream gravy drizzled all over the steak and potatoes. I salivate just thinking about it. But, as with any popular dish, some places make better Chicken-Fried Steak than others.

This week, I came across a chicken-fried steak to rival all others at the Mesa Ranch Bar & Grill in South Austin at Interstate 35 and Oltorf Drive, just south of downtown. Mesa Ranch serves either chicken-fried steak or chicken-fried venison with poblano mashers (mashed potatoes), which had a mild kick, homestyle cream gravy and the vegetable of the day. The chicken-fried steak was seasoned so well and was so tender, and with the poblano mashed potatoes, it was one heavenly bite after another.

The atmosphere is upscale Texan, with faux alligator skin table cloths, heavy silverware garnished with various ranch brands, super friendly servers, Texas art, and as one person described it, “…enough southwestern kitsch décor to choke a stud bull”. They are known for their steaks and fried cactus, and the key lime pie ought to be labeled a cheesecake. It is simply divine!

Even the Ladies Room had a few sayings tacked up on the wall that made me feel like I was definitely in a Texas establishment:

“Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History”

“When Life Hands You Lemons, Bust Out the Tequila and Salt”

Bon Appetít, Y’all!

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