When she was growing up, there were two versions of chicken-fried steak for chef Jeana Johnson. The upscale version was served at Palestine, Texas’ AAA Restaurant: a gravy-smothered, plate-spanning, deep-fried steak. The everyday chicken-fried steak options were handed through the car window from one of the Dairy Queens in her hometown. Texas’ Dairy Queen menu entry, the Steak Finger Country Basket — a red plastic basket filled with absurdly crunchy bolts of chicken-fried steak, toast and fries (everything a familiar shade of gold-orange that should have a Pantone designation) — was one favorite.
Then, there was The Dude. DQ's The Dude is iconically Texas fast food. A chicken-fried steak patty finds undulating lettuce, tomatoes and “salad dressing” in a big, squishy bun. At Johnson’s local Dairy Queen, the order usually took longer. It’d require a waiting period, car rumbling as she counted the minutes until a high-schooler ran her bag to the car (rain or shine).
At Mockingbird Diner, Johnson’s menu will stir up these Texas memories.
“Everything that we’re cooking is something that either Jack [Perkins, the co-owner] or myself grew up with at our dinner table,” she says.
The restaurant brims with customers just after high noon. People wait for booths with long menus in hand. The kitchen mows through orders of dinosaur-era classics like cream of mushroom soup, butterflied shrimp and butter beans.
The chicken-fried steak sandwich is my pick: a steak, tender, juicy, thick and framed by a crunchy border from a dry-wet-dry (milk and seasoned flour) method of dredging. The batter is brittle but clings to the steak like armor. It sits on a butter-grilled sesame seed bun alongside lettuce and tomato. The most important condiment is the only condiment: Duke’s mayonnaise.
It’s a grown-up Dallas version of Dairy Queen’s Dude, and we can abide.
“I don’t know many people who haven’t had a Dude at Dairy Queen. And this is a badass Dude,” Johnson says.
The steak, lodged neatly in its brittle coating, releases juice and heat, and shredded lettuce and mayo rush to cool everything off. It tastes like summer, home and, yes, Dairy Queen. Punch on some Crystal’s hot sauce that’s at your table if you’re feeling like some acid-heat.
Mockingbird’s nostalgia does not arrive arbitrarily. There’s deep memory being played within the kitchen. A fry basket is a Ratatouille-zoom-in recall of Johnson’s road trips to Galveston’s sandy beaches for hot fried shrimp. The chef beams when she describes Mockingbird’s meatloaf sandwich.
“She’s a salty lady. It’s Duke’s mayonnaise, buttermilk mashed potatoes and then a grilled piece of meatloaf," Johnson says. "A little bite from the tomato sauce.”
Halfway through the chicken-fried steak sandwich, its sesame seed bun cradling toasty grilled butter, I’m feeling my own brand of nostalgia. The steam of chicken-fried batter mixing with salty juices is so brightly Texan that it may swing you headfirst into your memory of growing up in the Lone Star State.
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“The cooking technique is great. It’s great when people recognize it,” Johnson says.
She says regulars’ eyes have welled up with tears when they order Mockingbird’s fried salmon croquettes; they remind people of their moms' food.
“But I’d much rather someone say, 'This feels like home to me. This reminds me of when I was a kid,'" Johnson says.
Mockingbird Diner, 3130 W. Mockingbird Lane