First Run at Chicken-Fried Steak

I spent some time in Texas recently at a conference for work, and on our last night there we ate at Horseshoe Hill in Fort Worth. It’s owned by Chef Grady Spears, and specializes in chicken-fried steak. In Texas, chicken-fried steak is a religion, and Spears is the high priest.

Prior to that night I had only had CFS as a sandwich patty from food service at the hospital where I volunteered as a teenager. It had been deep fried from frozen, I suspect, and tasted about like you would imagine. I had always enjoyed hand-made versions of CFS’ little sibling, the breaded pork tenderloin, over the years, and figured Spears’ offering would be sort of the beef equivalent. I had no idea that it would be a revelation.

Chicken-Fried Steak at HHThe meal, from start to finish, was amazing. Several of us around the table enjoyed appetizers, including some incredible fried okra and Rocky Mountain Oysters (hard pass from me on those). There was also plenty of cold Shiner Bock consumed.

I ordered my entrée “The Cowboy Way,” served with mashed potatoes, black pepper gravy and a grilled green onion. The very first fork full set my taste buds spinning. For such simple ingredients, the taste was dumbfounding. With the crunchy, golden crust, rich and slightly toothsome beef, and that silky gravy with the peppery bite – it was easy to understand why Chef Spears’ version of this classic has become its undisputed standard.

I am a large man with a huge appetite, and I found it impossible to finish the gargantuan portion in one sitting. Luckily the Marriott where we were lodged provided a small refrigerator in the room, and my breakfast plan for the next morning. :)

Friends at Horseshoe Hill

Some of the group opted for dessert. I couldn’t eat another bite, but was tempted by another Southern classic, banana pudding.

Off and on during the evening, a handsome man with a warm smile wearing a ballcap, a neatly-trimmed beard and an untucked shirt would pop into the room, quickly attend something, and then disappear. My boss, Stena, referred to him as “random guy.” As we were leaving, he came in again, fussed with something briefly, laughed and nodded at Stena’s greeting, and then followed us out to take a group photo. We realized only later that he was Chef Spears, which is sort of like not realizing until later that Nolan Ryan was taking your picture outside Arlington Stadium. He was friendly, unassuming and gracious.

In the week since my return from the trip, the memory of that meal has become an obsession. I was able to find Chef Spears’ recipe on the Texas Monthly site, and decided to do my best to replicate it at home. The prospects were a bit daunting, since I very rarely fry anything. Sauté, yes, but not fry. So I looked at this as an opportunity to add another skill to my culinary bag of tricks.

For a first attempt, it didn’t turn out badly. The gravy was perfect. Claudia loved the grilled onions, remarking that they reminded her of onion rings. The flavor of the steaks was incredible. I think that the cuts (top sirloin pan steaks) could have used just a bit more of the mallet. It’s not that they were tough, but some bites were on the chewy side of toothsome.

The breading is where I could really use some work. My guess is that I didn’t get the temperature of the oil quite right. The first steak I cooked was fairly blackened, so I pulled back the heat and must have overcompensated. The ones we ate had a little too much saturation for my taste.

If I were independently wealthy, I would be on the phone trying to contact the chef right now, begging him to let me come work in his establishment and watch what they do for a few weeks. As it is, I’ll have to be content to experiment with more breaded-and-fried things until I figure out how to do it right.