This might just be the best chicken fried steak in Central Texas
People often ask me where to get great chicken fried steak. I’m often at a loss.
Few dishes occupy a place as deeply ingrained in Texans’ nostalgia centers as chicken fried steak. But memories of the dish usually provide more comfort than current iterations.
The beef is often smashed as flat as a rubber turntable mat with about the same texture and consistency. The fried breading can have the body of a sock and slip right off the beef like one. The gravy might be lucky to hit you with anything more than salt, pepper and fat.
So, yeah, when people ask for my favorite, I usually disappoint them with my lack of a passionate answer.
But a recent visit to Commerce Cafe in Lockhart has recharged my passions and given me a new favorite. As ever, the best chicken fried steak around comes from a small Texas town.
Chef-owners Nathan Lemley and Sarah Heard deliver French-accented farm cuisine at their Foreign & Domestic in Austin’s North Loop neighborhood, but the restaurant the Luling residents opened last year on the Lockhart square has a decidedly more Texan drawl.
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Let’s take the appearance first. If much CFS (the acronym’s good enough for us Texans, right?) is as thin as a skipping stone, you could compare the Commerce Cafe version to a hulking boulder. The casing is as craggy and rippled as a perfectly fried chicken breast, and the dredge billows with the breathiness of smoked paprika, cayenne and garlic powder.
And this dish doesn’t get all of its size from the breading, bundled up like blankets trying to hide an empty bed. The top sirloin inside the clingy auburn shell is thick, tender and betrays the slightest blush at its center.
The zippy red eye gravy truly sets the dish apart. One swipe and you get a tingly smack of vinegar that announces this ain’t your papa’s CFS. Fans of Foreign & Domestic will recognize the roux-based gravy from the fried chicken biscuit at the standout Austin restaurant. The gravy carries a depth with it from coffee, breakfast sausage and smoked paprika rarely found imbued in the spackle regularly draped across the Texas café staple.
The dish is a beautiful example of how smart touches can elevate a humble classic, and it will now be my go-to answer when people ask me where they can get a great chicken fried steak.
(I look forward to your emails telling me about your favorites and what a fool I am to have not tried it or mentioned it. Because I will, and I will.)