When the Seven Deadly Sins were conceived, I'm quite certain there was a specific dish in mind for gluttony: chicken fried steak.
Despite my Fort Worth roots, with a northern bred mother at the stove, chicken fried steak was not on the menu at our house. It became the forbidden fruit--along with cream gravy, fried okra, yeast rolls, and pinto beans--something to be consumed at school on days when I could scrap together the dollar for the plate lunch.
Blame it on my upbringing, but I will forever group chicken fried steak into the category of "lunch lady food", best served by ladies in hairnets with an extra side of Plavix. And the craving for all things chicken fried can hit me at the oddest times.
Fortunately in Fort Worth, it's an ubiquitous menu item.
But would it be possible to replicate a childhood food memory? I set out to find out--chicken fried steak, gravy, and potatoes were the trifecta. I was curious if this quintessentially Fort Worth dish would taste the same everywhere.
My first attempt was at Lucile's Stateside Bistro (4700 Camp Bowie Blvd, Fort Worth). Chicken fried steak comes with a side of French fries. The dish looked promising: the dinner plate was not visible under a gigantic piece of breaded meat partially covered by fries. A cut into the center of the steak was a disappointment though as hunks of breading immediately broke off revealing a grayish well done flattening of steak underneath. It was impossible to keep the breading on the meat, possibly because of all the grease. The fries suffered from the same oil slick. They looked well done but were limp and slimy. The cream gravy, thankfully, was a redeeming grace. Peppery and thick, it almost held the meat and its crisp fried crust together.
Next up, I tried Michaels (3413 W 7th St, Fort Worth). I had set out to try a different dish but my server insisted I try the Ranch Fried Chicken Fried Steak. The menu boasts that this is griddle fried burgundy pasture beef. Size apparently was not the concern--the steak only covered a portion of the plate but definitely a higher quality than what I'm accustomed to seeing fried. The battering was spicy but subtle in texture and clung gently to the meat. Ah the glories of pan frying. The accompanying mashed potatoes held quite a bit of texture, so much so that gravy clung to them like drunken girls at last call...so I've heard. The chipotle chile-black pepper gravy was potent but the yellowish color under the dim cougar-friendly lights in the restaurant's Ancho Chile Bar made the entire dish appear days old. My palate was confused by the sensory disconnect.
My final attempt for my childhood splurge was at Grady's Restaurant (2443 Forest Park Blvd, Fort Worth), the eponymous new home of cowboy chef Grady Spears. The Rahr Beer Battered 3M Chicken Fried Steak with Green Onion Mashers was presented as a large thin slice of steak accompanied by a generous nesting of potatoes. The breading clung perfectly to the meat which was lightly covered by subtle creamy gravy. The potatoes were the true winner though: smooth, slightly oniony, and plentiful. They made a perfect foil for the steak, clinging lightly to each paired bite of steak.
In the end, I realized three things I didn't learn from the lunch ladies when I was young. One, size does not matter. Two, gravy is essentially the second coating on the steak. And finally, potatoes can make or break the dish.
Too bad there was nary a hairnet in sight.