The chain began in Austin, but Matt’s fried chicken sandwich was born in Dallas.
Matt’s Rancho Martinez, the junior location to the original Tex-Mex joint in Austin (which opened in 1952), is no stranger to dipping things in a deep fryer.
In 1993, Julia Child was knighted with chicken-fried steak — her first-ever forkful of the good-stuff — by founder Matt Martinez Jr. at his not-named restaurant in Dallas. When Martinez passed away in 2009, Robb Walsh, chicken-fried-things expert, titled his piece “The King of Tex-Mex is Dead” in the Houston Press.
There was “no specific time or place,” says Michael Frank, director of operations at Matt’s Rancho Martinez, but it did “evolve on the menu in the Dallas location.”
So, the sandwich is an important timepiece when you’re sitting in front of it — the amber crust of the tenderized chicken breast big enough to eclipse the moon. Deep on a lengthy Tex-Mex menu, loaded with traditional options like sour cream enchiladas and chile rellenos with raisins, is one fried chicken sandwich that is uniquely Dallas.
It's done with a handful of simple ingredients: chicken breast that’s pummeled until tender, flour puffed with “Matt’s Texas Sprinkle” (their secret seasoning blend, not a WWE star) and buttermilk. They swipe it through the flour, dunk it in the buttermilk, hit it with more of that sprinkle stuff and another dunk in the buttermilk. Then, it's fried until it’s encased in a peppery, brittle armor. The chicken’s juices are trapped in there, too, like Tony Stark in Iron Man's Mark I.
At the end of the long, empty bar — it’s just after opening — the sandwich aroma trail travels through the place. A server who passes it, walking the other direction, turns and proclaims, “Dang, is that what’s smelling so good?” She laughs. “I didn’t know we had that.”
It comes with a generous portion of fries, red onion, pickles and a pile of shredded lettuce on the side. Dashes of black pepper are visible in the hard crust of batter.
The sandwich is fork-tender (if you use a fork), cracking and breaking like bark as you slice it down the middle. There is steam and plenty of juices — not too salty or over-fried into that harsh burnt flavor. Then add rings of red onion, a cooling pile of shredded lettuce and pickle slices. You’ll end up staring into the face of a wildly overlooked (especially in the age of Popeyes cheeky stunts) local fried chicken sandwich for less than 10 bucks.
In this Instagram age, the hyperbole food — the dishes with the most or an excess of "the best" — tend to get more coverage. That era seems to be waning. There's been a great walking-back of the excess, and an appreciation for the simplicity that got it all started.
In other words, it's a good time to fall backward into the comforting arms of the deep cuts of your local joint's menus. It's a great time to sink into those BLTs, the nachos and the stews. At the end of 2019, remembering the hidden-in-plain-sight gems feels extra right.
Matt's Rancho Martinez, 1904 Skillman St. (East Dallas). Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday through Saturday.
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