Since Dallas loves its chicken fried steaks and high-quality beef, it's hardly surprising that local chefs wanting to pay homage to regional culinary traditions are dredging fancy cuts in batter.
But evidence suggests that it's rarely a good idea.
I've seen chicken fried ribeye, flatiron and hanger steaks on high-end menus around town, but haven't yet sampled an opulent CFS that could rival the classic cube steak version in texture or flavor. Of the ritzy chicken fried steaks I've tried - I still haven't ordered the $28 chicken fried kobe at Central 214 - I was most impressed by the rich black angus flatiron at Park.
Yet few other restaurants seem to be having much success with the formula: The chicken fried rib eye at The Common Table, one of three new eateries I've visited that has slapped an upscale rendition on its menu, was an unpounded debacle. The meat quality was far better at Tillman's Roadhouse, but the hanger steak seemed to throw the dish off balance.
"It's almost disrespectful to the steak," says Lisa Fain, who blogs as the Homesick Texan. "Really great steak doesn't need breading."
Fain - who's eaten far more chicken fried steaks than I, having grown up in a household where the dish was a Wednesday night staple - is opposed to cooks using anything but chuck for their chicken fried steaks. She recalls being scandalized when her New York City hairdresser proposed chicken frying a porterhouse.
"I understand why people do it, but it's contrary to what the essence of chicken fried steak is," she says. "It's gilding the lily."
While the origins of chicken fried steak are still passionately debated, most everyone agrees whoever pioneered the preparation wasn't serving it on fine china. Whether the innovator was a cowboy or a hungry German immigrant, Fain says the earliest chicken fried steaks were "poor people's food," coated with breading to make the meat more palatable. Although eaters no longer have to contend with questionable beef, breading and gravy remain critical elements of the recipe.
"I love beef, but chicken fried steak is more than just beef," Fain says.
Fain suggests serious chefs intent on putting their own spin on CFS might turn their attentions from the beef to the batter. She's especially fond of a chicken fried steak at a Houston restaurant that "isn't made with rib eye, but has a very elegant breading."
Yet she suspects Dallas restaurateurs might not take her advice. "Dallas, of course, is very fancy pants," she says.
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