I had a job early in my career that took me to Texas on a regular basis and I always made it a point to seek out a roadside diner and order up chicken fried steak or country fried steak as it’ known in some parts. Before that, it was somewhat of a mystery dish to me…was it chicken or steak, or both? Well, I figured that out and have since learned that there are many variations of this pounded and breaded cutlet and they each have their own unique characteristics.
The Austrian dish Wiener Schnitzel and the Italian-Latin dish Milanesa are two of those variations. Milanesa is a tenderized veal or pork cutlet, coated with flour, eggs, and breadcrumbs then fried. It’s also similar to the recipe for Scottish collups. Juanita’s and several other Mexican joints around town offer up their unique versions of Milanesa. Juanita’s is a hearty portion and a nice value as a combo plate. Tip-Top in Carlsbad is a great source for many German influenced schnitzel variations.
My local go-to sources for chicken fried steak include Captain Keno’s, Encinitas Café, and Denny’s. Captain Keno’s is the best value at $3.49, a price that seems to have been in place since way back. Outside of North County Hash House a Go-Go, Proud Mary’s, and Cowboy Star had it on their menus last time I checked. I would suggest calling these places first to make sure they still have it on the menu, as I don’t think this dish is hugely popular in healthy conscious San Diego.
While the exact origins of the dish are unclear, but many sources attribute its development to German and Austrian immigrants to Texas in the 19th century, who brought recipes for Wiener Schnitzel from Europe to the US. La Mesa in Dawson County Texas claims to be the birthplace of chicken fried steak and hosts an annual celebration…a possible future Lick the Plate judging opportunity? I’d be all over that one.
On the East coast, there was a cookbook published in 1838 called The Virginia Housewife that has a recipe for veal cutlets with a chicken fried steak type preparation. It was included in many regional cookbooks by the late 19th century. And of course Oklahoma, who has been known to borrow a few ideas from Texas, has included it in their official state meal. All I know is that growing up in Michigan I never heard of it.
With all these regional variations, there are as many ways to prepare it. I’ll stick to a basic preparation then talk a bit about ways I’ve enhanced it and will be preparing it at my upcoming Country Fried GRUEL dinner September 20 at the Encinitas American Legion.
Basic preparation includes starting with a thin cut of flank or cube steak by taking a thin and tenderizing it by pounding, cubing, or forking. Then it’s immersed in egg batter or broth then dredged in seasoned flour. I use broth in place of the egg as it then serves double duty as a base for the gravy. What you season it in is up to you but salt and pepper are key. I tend to add some Cajun seasoning or similar to give it a little kick. After that its frying time and that is done best in black cast iron skillet with butter, lard or shortening. This is not a health food dish folks, go with oil that will contribute to the flavor. My go-to is butter as again, it is going to contribute to the gravy after frying the steaks all crispy.
Which brings me to my favorite part of the chicken fried steak experience, the gravy. Remember that butter and broth I mentioned above? Mix it with flour, broth, cream, and sage for good measure I like to add some cooked breakfast sausage. I’ve also substituted chipotle for the sage to give it more or a Southwest flair. Sides can include anything from biscuits to mashed potatoes and some type of sautéed greens. It should be noted that chicken fried steak makes for a great breakfast with a couple of fried eggs to accompany it.
Consider this an open invitation to Coast News readers to try my Lick the Plate version at my next GRUEL dinner and concert on Saturday, September 20 at the Encinitas American Legion from 6-10pm with partner Sadie Rose Baking Co. providing fabulous bread. I’m also bringing down a great country rock band from Los Angeles called Merle Jagger for the full country effect. RSVP at www.lick-the-plate.com/gruel.