The best chicken-fried steak I ever had was in a rugged state's capital city, home of a state university and a newspaper called the Statesman. But it wasn't Austin. It was Boise, where I interned at the Idaho Statesman in 1985.
Manley's Truck Stop fried its version on the flat-top grill in a sputtering torrent of oil, and it spanned the length of a football-shaped platter the color of country eggshells. Instead of cream gravy on top, it came with brown gravy underneath. No fancy sides, just two big scoops of skin-on mashed potatoes, and you can bet they made wicked spuds in the Idaho heartland. I could eat all that, polish off a three-scoop milkshake and still find a place for blueberry pie. God, I miss metabolism.
When I went back to Boise in the early '90s to visit friends (but mostly to eat at Manley's), we drove up to find the place dark and locked, with ketchup bottles and sugar shakers still in clusters on the tables. Manley's Truck Stop had closed the day before I got there.
It'd make a convenient narrative arc to say that was the end of chicken-fried steak for me. It wasn't. Pound-for-pound, it's still one of the cheapest ways to get full. But there's a reason I don't order it much these days: Most of it's not very good, and there are better ways to measure my money's worth than by the sheer weight of the plate.
In his new book "Cooking for One," Washington Post food editor and former Austinite Joe Yonan writes about chicken-fried steak in the '80s at Threadgill's and the late Good Eats Cafe, whose Hoover Alexander later gave us another outlet for the dish at Hoover's Cooking. Yonan's spin on the memory is a recipe for pan-fried sirloin with anchovy sauce, and I found myself getting protective of the pounded-steak-and-cream-gravy version.
As a part of the Austin trinity that includes Tex-Mex and barbecue, chicken-fried steak deserves a fair account in the present tense, so for a sense of the current state of CFS, I hit Hill's Cafe, Hoover's, Hyde Park Bar & Grill, Shady Grove and Threadgill's.
You can't take chicken-fried steak for granted. Manley's taught me that.
4700 S. Congress Ave. 851-9300, www.hillscafe.com .
At Hill's, I sat in the Cory Morrow booth, across from the Gov. Rick and Anita Perry booth, crossways from the Darrell-Sammy-Bob Roundtable, named for Royal, Allred and Cole, the latter being the radio host who owns the place. Bob Cole knows a few people.
Morrow's one of those red-dirt country singers, smiling in a framed autographed picture on which he's written, "Thanks so much for the love and the love handles." You could grow a set around here. In this country cafe environment, hostess Gigi Hayhurst will surprise you with a lyrical French accent, and she'll walk you all over the big barn of a place until you're comfortable. You start with sweet yeast rolls and butter, and iced tea comes in a wide-mouth pickle jar.
We all remember the flat, salty school cafeteria renditions of chicken-fried steak, and Hill's version ($11.95) struck me as a grown-up institutional version of those, with a grainy crust and the thinnest meat in this group of five. The menu tells us the yellow gravy is made with chicken stock, but it couldn't save the steak and only compounded the saltiness. One goal of this CFS expedition was to pick one side dish that was starchy or fried or both, plus one that was healthier or at least colored green to atone, so I went with corn nuggets and a daily special of Brussels sprouts. Mushy and faintly metallic, the sprouts were a misfire, but I liked the little corn fritters in spite of myself, their deep-fried crunch and sweet-kerneled interiors trumping my suspicions about their McNugget-like uniformity.
But Hill's is as much about place and people as it is about food, and its mix of honky-tonk and lodge-house decor seems to invite the kind of lingering lunches that turn plain old booths into historical landmarks.
2002 Manor Road, 479-5006. 13376 U.S. 183 N., 335-0300. www.hooverscooking.com .
The last thing I expected from chicken-fried steak ($11.99) was balance, but Hoover's uses the right proportion of salt to pepper, breading to meat, gravy to steak, crunch to cushion.
Don't get me wrong: The thing's huge, and it's entirely possible to throw the plate out of balance with side dishes. Pick potato salad and mac and cheese and the last thing you'll feel is balanced. Or overcooked green beans with bacon and jalapeño creamed spinach. But I found a happy extra-medium at Hoover's with a bowl of stewed okra and tomatoes as red and green as Christmas candy. If okra's too far down a country road for you, candied yams are a shorter walk but country all the same, with sensory-glazing syrup and hulking pieces of earthy root , including the gnarled ends.
In country style, you get gingerbread biscuits and cornbread to soak up any gravy that survives dinner.
Every day but Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Manor Road and all day every day on Research Boulevard, Hoover's gives you the option of a smaller chicken-fried steak with three side dishes. Balance it with warm peach cobbler.
Hyde Park Bar and Grill
4206 Duval St., 458-3168. 4521 West Gate Blvd., 289-2700. www.hydeparkbarandgrill.com .
No matter how packed the Hyde Park on Duval Street gets, there always seems to be a room with sunshine, carved as it is out of a neighborhood cottage. I ran into country singer Larry Gatlin here once, the same night we almost adopted a stray kitten off the front porch. We know this place.
Knowing this place means ordering buttermilk french fries every time you go. They're gnarled, earthy and quirky, in a category of their own: chicken-fried fries. They come as a double bill with chicken-fried steak ($10.95). It's up to you to cast the other side dish, and because CFS is country soul food, collard greens are a natural.
The steak itself is puffy with batter, inflated almost, with sections of it folded over nothing but air. Hot, shattery, perfectly salted air batter. It puts the "chicken-fried" in "chicken-fried steak." The steak holds up its end, too, letting you know it'd be just fine without all that show-off breading and gravy.
1624 Barton Springs Road. 474-9991, www.theshadygrove.com .
It's not fair to compare cream-gravy chicken-frieds with Shady Grove's Hatch green chile-and-cheese version ($10.29). But where gravy is usually a salt-driven conveyor of hot-peppered nostalgia, the shredded chiles and sunbeams of Monterey Jack pour on a little heat, a little color and every bit of the baby's blanket comfort of Mom's own version, if your Mom had a thing for the Southwest. The breading is like parchment, crinkly and crisp, frayed at the edges but otherwise following the contours of the meat, which is thin and gristled with a trace of pink. You can cut it with a fork, but do so in smaller pieces so you don't get into a chewing contest.
At Shady Grove, the steak comes with a colorful tossed salad elevated a notch by jalapeño ranch plus a side dish, which for me is always a twice-baked jalapeño potato, a raft of mashers broiled a spicy sunrise red in a thick baked skin. It's the closest I get these days to the carb-crazy luxury of a loaded baked potato.
301 W. Riverside Drive, 472-9304. 6416 N. Lamar Blvd., 451-5440. www.threadgills.com .
Threadgill's fell off my short list of places to go awhile back, the victim of long waits for service, for food, for the check. It had become like the most popular food amusement park in town, a place I'd take out-of-towners if I had time to wait in line for the rides. Threadgill's lineup of country cooking and overworked vegetable dishes had worn thin, too, except for a lunch special of chicken and dumplings.
But you have to include Threadgill's in a story like this one, then hope for the best. My faith was partly revived by a chicken-fried steak ($11.95) with the big beefy taste of sirloin, crumbly breading and peppery cream gravy, with extra points for a cornbread muffin and a yeasty mushroom cloud of a roll. A side of spinach casserole with mushrooms reinforced my growing sense that vegetables get better and better the less and less you do to them, a sense sharpened by simple yellow squash with a little of that squeaky garden bite left in them.
In one of those serendipitous moments only possible at Threadgill's, I saw legendary Austin poster artists Guy Juke and Jim Franklin having lunch together, only a few windows removed from the armadillo awning sculptures that bear their signatures. You must be THIS iconic to ride this ride.