Well, I finally made it to Babe's. What kind of food critic lives in Dallas for nearly two years and doesn't check out the chicken fried steak blessed by Sam Sifton himself? I didn't stop by the Roanoke location like the former New York Times food critic recommended, but I did follow his direction to order both the steak and the fried chicken -- more on that in a bit.
On a rainy Saturday, well past 2 p.m. the wait for a table at Babe's in Carrollton was still longer than 20 minutes. "Frankie, party of two!" The call animated two old ladies in velvet pants and black sneakers. They slipped in the front door as a few customers slipped out, most with a clear plastic bag filled with chicken and biscuits in tow. The steamy bags taunted me with the delicious smell of deep-fried poultry. I was ravenous when my lonely party of one was finally invited inside.
I almost second-guessed Mr. Sifton's instructions after I told my waitress I wanted both the fried chicken and the chicken-fried steak. She raised her eyebrows inquisitively, gesturing with her hands like she was about to catch a basketball. "It's about that big," she warned me. It was almost 3 p.m., and I still hadn't had lunch. I assured her I'd be OK.
A few moments later she came back with my "salad" and biscuits, neither of which I can endorse. The biscuits were bready and bland and the salad was merely a pile of iceberg lettuce swimming in a sweet but vinegary dressing. Clearly, this was the laziest salad I've ever been served, but I was sitting in a restaurant that fries their green beans in bacon fat. Babe's is not a garden-fresh veggies kind of place.
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Everything was set straight when my mountain of deep fried splendor arrived. I tapped my fork against the crust on the outside of the steak and reveled in the satisfying sound. The crust was so crisp it took considerable force to drive my fork through it, and with one bite the chicken-fried steaks I've previously enjoyed in and around Dallas receded forever into mediocrity.
I pulled hard on my unsweetened ice tea and took a second bite, this time with a bit of pepper gravy served on the side in a ridiculously large bowl. The breading crunched against my molars and reverberated in my head like an army of tiny jackhammers. I grabbed a jalepeño, pricked it with my fork and squeezed it gently over the golden breading. As I took the next bite, laced with a vinegary piquancy, which I tempered with more pepper gravy, the room began to recede. The loud and boisterous diners shifted to a muffled mono, the waitresses spoke like Peanuts' parents and time began to slow. I was floating on a cloud of velvety mashed potatoes. I was having an out-of-body chicken-fried steak experience.
I can't tell you if I ate the steak in three minutes or I ate it in 20, but I will tell you I ate the entire thing. And as my surroundings came back into focus the plate of fried chicken that remained looked comparatively unimpressive. It was good, flavorful and juicy, but try as I might I couldn't recapture the grease-laden dreamland of my not so distant past.
I must have another of these chicken-fried steaks. Next time, I'm going to Roanoke and I'm taking lots of beer. Babe's is BYOB.