Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Food: Chicken Fried Steak

Six Real Austin Chicken Fried Steaks

By Mike Truth and Sean Claes
Mike Truth: What kind of situation have I gotten myself into? That's the first question that enters my mind as I set off onto an excursion with which I truly have no experience. Who am I to think that I'm some kind of connoisseur when it comes to fine dining? I'm not a food expert. I'm too picky of an eater born with a very limited palate when it came to the finer
things in culinary arts. I don't eat very many vegetables, very little healthy things, so who am I to think that I'm some kind of expert when it comes to certain foods?

I was born into restaurant business with delicious subtleties of southern comfort food provided by the delicious "fixins" of Mr. Arthur Boudreau. The proprietor and namesake of the now defunct Art's Coffee Shop was known for his Chicken Fried Steak delight. With the passing of that wonderful man, came to an end of one of the greatest recipes of a Southern delicacy, which seems to be a dying art form. Some years ago, I found somewhat the equivalent of my father's concoction in the "big as a plate serving" that was dolled out by Buda’s 221 Truck Stop better known as Dorsett's. This wonderful spot suffered the strain of progress when Cabala’s superstore opened in 2005 across the way and forced the closure of the major fairway to the famous truck stop. Since then, I have been on a mission to find a delectable breaded taste of heaven.

I put it out there that I had been to several chains and to no avail. The Iron Cactus, Hyde Park Grill, Hills Cafe, and Threadgill’s all fell short as well to live up to their reputations to me as what I felt was an outstanding Chicken Fried Steak. So I put it out there, on the web, for the people to deliver me from the dull drums of over breaded, thin gravies, yellow or brown, over cooked, under cooked, travesties of what I look for in a Chicken Fried Steak.

When I posted my dilemma on Facebook, I was met with more suggestions than I could fathom. Enter Sean Claes.

Sean Claes:
I saw Truth’s post about Chicken Fried Steak and I instantly knew we had to embark on a mission together. Like he, I’ve been trying to find the best Chicken Fried Steak in existence. I compare my memories to the Unicorn Restaurant in Laredo (where I grew up) that closed in the mid 90s and the Triple C Steakhouse in Devine (where we always stopped on the way to San Antonio) who changed cooks and their amazing CFS became a shriveled and over-breaded version of its former self.

So, when I found that Mike Truth was as passionate about CFS as I was, it made sense to join forces to find the best one in Austin. We began with 30 restaurants tha
t came highly suggested by our friends and foodies. We chose or top 12 picks (eliminating chain-restaurants and ones we’d tried and not been impressed by in the past) and then called on Food Editor Marsha Mann to help bring it down to a manageable six. The six that made the final cut were (in alphabetical order) Arkie’s Grill, Evangeline Café, Freddie’s Place, Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill, Hoover's Cooking, and Stallion Grill. And so the adventure began…

Mike Truth:
Two Men, Six Diners, and One Elite Chicken Fried Steak....

(Presented in the order in which we sampled them. The rating is on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the best)
Arkie's Grill
4827 East Cesar Chavez Street

Austin, TX 78702-5137
(512) 385-2986

Mike Truth: My mouth waters in anticipation of this first excursion. Arkie's, unlike the trendy right-next-to-downtown spots, this establishment is down a ways, a lot closer to 183 than to IH35 or the downtown district. Sorry scenesters, you actually have to go to the real East Austin to enjoy this delight. As I pull up, I'm reminded of a truck stop that could only serve the culinary delights of southern comfort food. As we walk through the front door, the general manager of the establishment, Steve Jones, greets us both. After a firm handshake and a hearty welcome, we are both seated in a booth that is a little too small for my waistline. Sitting under a picture of a Miss Texas from 2001, the very polite and attentive waitress Phyllis brings us our salad, and a delectable looking Chicken Fried Steak with a side of fries. Something else was brought to us as well.... homemade corn sticks. Now, unlike most cornbread, which is crusty on the outside and flaky on the in, these Corn Sticks were fluffy on the inside, more like a yeast base. DELICIOUS. The steak itself was not bad. The proportions were sizeable, especially for the price, and filling. The steak itself was a little thinner cut then I normally like it but it was almost perfectly breaded. It was cooked a medium to medium rare which is just the way a steak should be done in this matter. The gravy, was a milk based, was a little thin but not watery and had a nice peppery taste. The service was perfect as our glasses never went empty and we were offered plenty of bread. I could definitely see myself coming back to this little slice of heaven on the far east side.

Sean Claes:
On the journey to the first stop of our Chicken Fried Steak adventure was really in
teresting. You pretty much drive East down Cesar Chavez until you think you’ve gone too far and then you’ll see Arkie’s Grill. After picking our booth, we were greeted by a waitress that reminded me of Flo from Mel’s Diner. In fact, the whole place reminded me of the 1950s style greasy spoon. The kind of place that could either be really good or really bad. And once we received our Chicken Fried Steak the question was answered. It’s really good. The breading was the correct amount of crispy, the size was perfect, the gravy was the star of the dish, and even though the steak itself was a bit on the thin side it was quite tasty. It’s almost exactly what I look for in a CFS, and it began our adventure on a high point.
Mike Truth rating = 8.0 , Sean Claes Rating = 8.5

Stallion Grill
5201 Airport Boulevard
Austin, TX 78751-2218
(866) 435-1184

Sean Claes: Parking in the lot in front of Stallion Grill, I immediately got the feeling that I was going back in time. This place doesn’t is decidedly not high end, it’s a diner that is nestled along a busy North Austin street. Walking through the front door, I was ushered along the ordering line, kind of like a Bill Miller’s.

We ordered or meals and took our seats. The manager came over and he chatted us up for a while. He mentioned they have been playing with recipes since he took over a few months ago and he’s really proud of their hamburgers and invited us back to try them. A few minutes later two beautiful Chicken Fried Steaks arrived. I ordered mine with fried okra, one of my favorite “southern comfort sides” in the world. The cream gravy was the classic style, with a nice peppery flavor. The crust-to-meat ratio was pretty dead-on, and the size was perfect for a hungry man like myself. While the taste was good, there was a little lacking in the flavor of the meat itself. That said the manager assured us they were working on it and really seemed to have a passion to get a stellar dish going. I’m going to head back there soon.

Mike Truth: Walking into The Stallion Grill brought back memories of my father's old establishment. The set up was almost the same. You could see the cook preparing your food so that you know it was fresh. You paid for it up front and then you took your seat. Have to admit, the ambiance took me back to my youth.

Needless to say my high expectations were met with some disappointment as I took my first bite into the steak. Now before I go on, I must tell you that the meat itself was tender but the crust itself stuck to the meat much like it was prepared ahead of time that way. I personally like a little separation between the crust and the meat. The crust itself was very black peppery blend but it was a little too moist. I'm more of a flaky crust kind of guy. However, the size of the steak was very sizeable and the steak to crust breading was a very good ratio.

The side dish on mine was french fries and they were truly unique. I normally like a very crispy fries but these were actually kind of moist but the way they were cut and seasoned were very enticing to say the least. Not a bad CFS, but I'm on a mission to find "the one" and this just didn't quite cut it.
Claes = 7.5, Truth = 7.0

Evangeline Café
8106 Brodie Lane
Austin, TX 78745-7468
(512) 282-2586

Sean Claes: Evangeline Café is one of the more interesting places we visited on our trip. It looks like it’s been there for 30 years, so I was surprised that it has only been open since 2003. I talked with owner Curtis Clarke about his including a CFS at a Cajun restaurant. “I don't have a Chicken Fried Steak at Evangeline Cafe just because we're in the Capitol of Texas,” he said “It's always been one of my favorite meals. Ours is never battered till it's ordered, & topped with homemade cream gravy, made fresh daily.”

While most CFS are served with fried sides, theirs comes with salad and rice. The Cajun-ness both comes out in the choice of sides and the cayenne flavor to the cream gravy. Not spicy, just a little palate lifter. The crust was light and airy and had that fish batter look to it. When our CFS arrived it was piping hot and extremely flavorful. I left there happy, full, and wanting to go back again. Oh, they brought out a Chicken Fried Alligator for us to sample as well. Not being a fan of the fishy stuff I couldn’t recommend it, but my Arkansas-based neighbor thought it was the bees knees.

Mike Truth: When I was given a list of places to try, this one really struck a chord in my mind. A Cajun restaurant that served CFS. Being a fan of both I figured either this was going to be incredible or an incredible disappointment. As we sat down at our beer bottle capped covered table, I started setting into the mood of the far South Austin haven. Between the LSU sports gear and the everything-Louisiana decor of the place I knew I had stepped into the right place for a guy with the last name Boudreau. When we received our CFS, I noticed a few things. The crust was fluffy and the gravy had a light red hue topped with chives. As I took my first bite into this savory dish, I tasted the ingredient that made that red-hue....Cayenne.

It was awesome. Spiced perfectly in traditional milk based gravy. The meat was tender, a nice thick cut cooked to perfection. The separation was perfect and the portions were incredible for a lunch price of $7.99. The crust itself was interesting, more of a fish batter than the tradition flour batter. The crust to meat ratio was near perfection and the Sweet Tea that was served with it made it Southern to the tee. The best place so far on our excursion. I will 100 percent come back again to this little slice of Creole Heaven in South Austin.
Claes = 9.5, Truth = 9.5

Freddie’s Place
1703 South 1st Street
Austin, TX 78704-4249
(512) 445-9197

Mike Truth: Freddy's Place, nestled in the heart of South Austin is a truly an awesome setting. Sean and I decided to have our meal outside in their huge courtyard dining area. As the waiter walked up and served us our plates I noticed this was the largest CFS we had been served so far.

Unfortunately, as I took my first bite into the steak, I was disappointed by the lack of flavor that this steak had to offer. It wasn't that the meat itself was overcooked, it was just dry. Come to find out that instead of using milk to coat the meat they use Lone Star Beer. Now, as Texan as that may sound, unfortunately, I have a tendency to think that it also may be the reason that it was so dry and lacked the flavor that it deserves. The gravy once again was a milk-based gravy but not very flavorful. The best part of the meal was the sides. Real Garlic Mashed Potatoes and Cornbread, while both excellent, could not quite save this meal.

Sean Claes: I really like Freddie’s Place. The feel of the place is like you’re walking into a family get-together. I actually brought my daughters with me so they could play on the playground while we enjoyed our CFS. Freddie’s Place uses a double-batter of Lone Star (we ARE in Texas y’all) and serves up a ginormous plate-filling entrée.

I really wanted to love it… but I have to say it’s really just an average CFS. It is not bad in and sense, the breading was standard and the gravy seemed to add most of the flavor to the dish. It satisfies every requirement for being a chicken fried steak, but it kind of lacks. Now, I ate every bite and didn’t miss a drop of gravy, but I’m going to stick to the fantastic burgers on future trips.

Truth = 6.0, Claes = 6.5

Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill
303 Red River Street
Austin, TX 78701-4130
(512) 236-9599

Sean Claes: This is a beautiful restaurant located in downtown Austin. It’s definitely the type of place that your well-to-do businesspeople choose to eat. We walked through a sea of suits and slacks as we took our seat on the patio. We ordered the lunch special CFS, which was the first one we’d visited that was over the $10 mark. When it arrived it was a large serving, but we quickly learned that the largeness was mostly due to the half-inch breading overhang all the way around. One of my CFS pet peeves. But, once I cut into it and started eating, I quickly forgot about the breading issue. It has a beautiful peppery-chipotle flavor. A note to the spice-intolerant: If you can’t handle something spicy, don’t order this CFS. The meat itself seemed to have a chipotle seasoning and it came with beautiful chipotle-cream gravy. Now, I’m a big fan of spice, and this was bordering on too much even for me. I was very happy to have the “house special” macaroni and cheese to cool my mouth down. And the moist and crisp squash and zucchini veggies added a flavorful touch as well. If I were judging overall experience, Moonshine would get extra points for having my favorite desert, Peanut Butter Pie, on the menu. Yum-O.

Mike Truth:
Now, for the better part of some six years now, I have worked in the downtown Austin area and I have passed by Moonshine several times. I have been told of the delectable delights of this wonderful place but I was told to bring your pocketbook. As we were once again sat outside I realized that this place just might live up to it's billing.

The moderately priced CFS, $11.95 lunch special, was not bad at all. First of all, our drinks were served in mason jars which is a big plus for me because it takes me back to my childhood when I would stay with my grandmother in Lake McQueeney, Texas and that was we always drank out of when staying at her place. Moving on, the portion itself looked huge until I made my first cut and realized that there was a lot of breading. The meat itself was a little thinner than I normally like but it was very flavorful. Once again a spiced up gravy, this time using Chipotle, served it right, however the best part of it was that the meat itself also tasted like it had been seasoned with Chipotle as well, that's a huge plus from me.

And just in case that's not enough spice for you...Jalapeno Cornbread. I wasn't too crazy about the huge cut French Fries but I did try some of Sean's Peanut Butter pie and I have to say, I'm a fan. Once again, a very good dining experience I plan on visiting again.

Claes = 8, Truth = 8.5

Hoover’s Cooking
2002 Manor Rd
Austin, TX 78722 (512) 479-5006

Mike Truth: Of all the places that I had been, I have to admit, this is the only one that I was making a repeat trip to. I came to Hoovers a little less than a year previous and I have to admit, I was not that impressed with the CFS before. But I received so many recommendations about the place (and Sean had never been there for CFS before) that I decided to give it a second chance.

Boy, was I glad I did. No sooner than we sat down to the butcher papered covered tables and had placed our orders and my dinner salad had been delivered, then our lunch plates were delivered right before our eyes. Man that was quick. Sitting in front of me was a very good size Chicken Fried Steak. The first thing I noticed was the gravy had a brown hew to it. As I took a bite I noticed that the gravy tasted as if they mixed brown gravy with thick cream gravy. It was the richest and thickest gravy of all the places we tried with no pepper needed to add. Very good combo.
Also, the crust seemed to be a nice mixture of a flour base with a corn meal mix. Once again, a very good combo.

The meat itself was prepared perfectly but I have to admit my favorite part still was the mashed potatoes. A slight hint of garlic mixed into the perfectly mashed potato. The presentation was nice and I have to say that it was well worth the reunion.

Sean Claes: I admit, 75% of the time the classic restaurants that have earned a reputation for having a stellar CFS earned it so long ago that the current product is a huge letdown. As Mike said, I’d never actually ordered a CFS here, and I’d only eaten at Hoover’s once or twice in my time in this area. So, we decided that we’d throw caution to the wind and make it our last stop on this journey. We walked into the restaurant and it was packed on a Thursday lunch, the hostess quickly cleaned off the only available table, which was vacated by the couple that left as we walked in, and sat us down. This place is known for comfort food, and we were not let down when our CFS hit the table. It was a big portion, the meat was a good thickness, the breading had some love fried into it and the gravy was an interesting brown/cream combo. This is the only place that seemed to spend time perfecting each ingredient. I didn’t have to add ANY seasoning and this is the only one I felt a bit guilty dipping in catsup. The sides of fried okra and the jalapeño-creamed spinach were a perfect addition. In my experience on this trip, Hoover’s has served up the closest thing to an authentic CFS that we were searching out. It was the perfect ending.
Truth = 8.5, Claes = 9.5

Sean Claes: I’m very happy with all six places we profile. But judging on Chicken Fried Steak alone, I’d have to put Hoover’s and Evangeline at the same level. Hoover’s is the authentic comfort food CFS I’ve been searching for and Evangeline creates a stellar CFS with their special Cajun twist.

Mike Truth: All six places had different things that were very desirable. I have to say that Evangeline's was the closest CFS to perfection with Moonshine edging out Hoover's and Arkie's. But I can definitely see myself making my way back to all four of these establishment's again. This was an adventure well worth the trip.

Sean Claes: We’re not “professional” foodies, we’re just two friends who found an excuse to have lunch together and sample some fine local food. At the end of it all, I’ve got to say, local restaurants have some spectacular cuisine. Just like I say about music, support local… you never know when you’ll find something amazing.

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