On The Range: Milanesa

On The Range is a weekly exploration of the history and lore of Texas menu items.

Let's suppose a job offer landed in your lap that's just too good to be true. The money is a significant upgrade from your present position.

Only one problem: You'd have to move out of state, possibly even out of the country. How could you possibly leave Texas and all the Lone Star things you hold near and dear, such as chicken-fried steak? I mean, do other cultures have anything like our thick Texas beef, pounded tender, breaded, fried, and covered with an impossibly rich layer of cream gravy seasoned with just the right amount of salt and pepper?

You may be surprised to learn that the answer is yes. It's called milanesa and is actually rather common in Europe and South America.

Writing in the Miami Herald, Linda Cicero notes that Bifstek Milanesa is "no doubt related to cottolette alla Milanese, a pounded, breaded, and pan-fried cutlet of beef, pork, or chicken that is the most celebrated dish of Milan (Italy). When Italian immigrants brought it to Latin America, it took on local flavors."

Austin-based etymologist Barry Popik expounds on these local variations. He reports that in Argentina and Uruguay, milanesas are frequently served hot with mashed or fried potatoes and are called milanesas con papas. In another version, the Argentines add tomato paste, mozzarella cheese and ham, and call this cordon-bleu-like dish Milanese a la Napolitana. In Chile, they call this variation Milanesa Kaiser and sandwich a layer of molten cheese between the beef and the ham.

Of course, if you're of German descent, you know that wiener schnitzel is yet another type of milanesa made from veal cutlets.

Finally, for a better explanation of the difference between a chicken milanesa and a Texas-style chicken fried steak, why don't we ask a Mexican? Specifically, food writer Gustavo Arellano, who when he's not answering questions in his nationally-syndicated column 'Ask A Mexican' (carried here in the Observer), is explaining the finer points of dining to readers of the Orange County Weekly. He writes, "(Nory's) chicken milanesa was as epic as any Texan chicken-fried steak, but in a different scope: while the chicken-fried steak I had was huge and thick, Nory's version was pounded to the thinness of a magazine, which meant the cutlet spread to the size of--I kid you not--a Frisbee."

Hmm..if you threw your dog a Frisbee-size milanesa...

At El Ranchito Restaurant in Oak Cliff, their Milanesa is not only Frisbee-sized and fork-tendered, it's always offered as a Monday lunch special. For about ten dollars, you can feast on a generous portion of their beef milanesa, an excellent cup of caldo de res, fried papas, and house-made corn and flour tortillas. Rice and beans complete your meal, which is so large that you may find yourself asking for a doggie bag when you're done.

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Chris Meesey