All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their history while exploring how the food has changed – for the good or bad – over the years.
Standing at a table in the dining room, one of Lucky’s servers scoops something from a large tub, drops it into a ramekin, dunks the scooper into water and repeats the process over a tray of ramekins. The aroma of toasted bread fills the restaurant, and, like a good diner-style spot, there’s an ever-present murmur of patrons and clatter of plates and silverware. "Butter," the server says when I inquire about what's in the ramekins. "Well, cinnamon butter.”
Before heading back to my table, I’m handed today's copy of The Dallas Morning News to sit with my chicken-fried steak. Welcome to the lovable Lucky’s Cafe on Oak Lawn, where bright food and service in a diner-style atmosphere has held on among change for 30 years.
The specials on the chalkboard, which is just as whimsical as the restaurant – this isn’t a downtrodden, cigarette-in-the-ash-tray diner where you’re afraid to try the fish – are pan-fried catfish and chicken-fried chicken. Liver and onions are on the board too, a dish as old as white table cloths. The kitchen is lined by a diamond-patterned metallic wall, as if it’s a food truck that could pick up and drive off at any second.
I get the chicken-fried steak, a dish that a Lucky's regular strongly encouraged, with a side of gravy-blanketed mashed potatoes and a simple bowl of garlic-infused spinach that’s as good as the T-bone steak it could have come with.
The CFS’ gravy, which is coffee-spiked, is royally creamy and front-loaded with herbs. It tastes, as it damn well better, of butter and cream and black pepper. The best chicken-fried steak gravies should almost not need the chicken-fried steak; you could eat it with a big spoon and a couple of biscuit shards. The mashed potatoes have tears of potato skin, and the spinach tastes like the farmer dropped it off just for me.
The chicken-fried steak is in need of more tenderizing (it gets a double-batter dip and a deep touch of paprika, salt and pepper), but I’m still devouring it. I swipe through the mashed potatoes, and everything is golden.
In all of Lucky's three decades on Oak Lawn, just off Lemmon, bright food and service have been a constant. Recently, after years of turning down pancake requests at 3 p.m., the cafe gave in to all-day breakfast. Sourcing from local farms is another recent update to the restaurant, says Tim Swatek, front-of-house manager.
"It was a big deal," Swatek says. "We have more newcomers. It was kind of tough bringing the regulars along because we are a regulars-based business. ... We're doing our best to remain the same."
Actually, Lucky’s is about as friendly a diner-style spot as it gets. You won't find the upsettingly cynical server from Hell or High Water here. You won't find freezer-burned dishes or piles of sad, soggy french fries. Nobody’s hurling prepackaged chicken-fried steak circles into the deep fryer.
“We have people that come here for breakfast, lunch and dinner," Swatek says. "We’re basically their kitchen.”
Swatek, who’s worked at Lucky’s for 13 years, is out there every day with guests. On my recent visit, he runs out tiny plates of fresh biscuits from the kitchen. I hear two, then three, more orders for chicken-fried chicken before I leave, and across from me, it seems like everyone's swiping a biscuit with a pad of butter.
Lucky's Cafe, 3531 Oak Lawn Ave.
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