All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
There’s no point in arguing: The best chicken-fried steak in Dallas is at AllGood Cafe. Piping hot and arriving fast, it roots itself into your memories. After a few servings, the image of AllGood’s CFS appears in your mind whenever the words “chicken-fried steak” are mentioned. How does it happen?
Tenderized steak gets a swipe through fine flour and is lowered into a bath of bubbling peanut oil. It fries until it has a thin and brittle shell. The steak maintains the shattering breading even under the deluge of peppery gravy. This gravy’s nowhere near the sad, gloopy, fake, bone-white cream sauce you see on many a Dallas CFS. It’s nearly bronze from a stock of roasted chicken bones. Pair the CFS with green beans and mashed potatoes unless you’re out of your mind. I’m halfway through the chicken-fried steak before I realize I’ve been using a butter knife instead of the serrated steak knife.
It’s August in the year 2000. Mike Snider, a pioneer of the music scene in Deep Ellum, is hosting a “restaurant shower.” It’s like a baby shower, but instead of birthing a human, Snider’s about to become the father of a restaurant. Friends and family bring gifts — chairs, tables, art and knickknacks — for his new baby.
“All of our friends in the industry and families donated things to us,” he says. “These red booths we're sitting on? They came from Daddy Jack’s on Greenville.” The tables and wooden chairs (at the time, there was a hodgepodge of chairs) came from Baker’s Ribs. The tiles in the rectangular tables were from Chili’s, which was going to toss the tiles in the dumpster, Snider says.
“All those knickknacks over there ... the orange Elvis ... all came from that party,” he says. We’re sitting in one of Daddy Jack’s donated booths. Snider’s exuberant — he brought over a plate of fresh-cut tomatoes showered with feta and a sea salt with red Hawaiian clay.
In 2000, after the shower, the restaurant took off. AllGood is Deep Ellum’s child: raised with love and friends and family and things from the neighborhood. Everybody pitched in: Brian Hennington, the chef from the old Deep Ellum Cafe, thought up some recipes. So did Snider’s buddy Jack Chaplin of Daddy Jack’s. The chili, a Dallas icon, is Snider's recipe. Hennington’s recipes would become the cornerstone of the restaurant — a grilled cheese with roasted peppers, huevos rancheros and, of course, the chicken-fried steak.
“Those were very important. It made the style and the vision of this place,” Snider says. The look and feel is Austin, but it's become essential Deep Ellum. AllGood Cafe is truly a place of home-cooked memory. Once inside, you’ll be surprised to learn it’s only 17 years old; it feels like a diner that’s been in the city for 100 years. On my recent visit, Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” is playing. The patron sitting behind me shouts “Motown central! Yeah!”
Everything on the menu is consistently warming and homey. Snider's chili is not to be overlooked. It’s a simmering cauldron of ground chuck, tomatoes, chili powder and beer. The grilled cheese is comforting and decadent, especially if paired with chips and queso.
Snider laughs when I ask how long his chef, Cesar Martinez, has been in the kitchen. It’s been a while.
Last year, AllGood tweaked the look of the menu. The same favorites were there, but the pages looked different. The change didn’t sit well, and the cafe is trying to bring more people in at night. Snider tells me I’m the first to see the new menu design — it more prominently features the chili, the live music you’ll hear on AllGood's humble stage and the chicken-fried steak. He references the old menu, pointing out its flaws:
“Look over here — where the fuck’s the chili? It’s like, come on, guys!”
In addition to being a prolific booking agent for iconic Texas (and a lot of American folk rock) bands, Snider has a background in theater. He tells me about method acting, about how it relies on sense memory. For example: If you want to cry, you think about your dog dying. That’s what his food does, he says: It causes sense memory. When I ask what his favorites are, he laughs.
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"They're my kids," he says. “It’s food you’re going to eat again. It’s not squid ink pasta.”
In other words, there’s something about each dish that makes you feel like you ate it growing up. It's made with heart, surrounded by the body of a restaurant held up by the community.
And when I want to feel happy, I think about the chicken-fried steak.
AllGood Cafe, 2934 Main St.