When you grow up in a different region of the nation, you are exposed to a different kind of cuisine. What you take for granted in Texas is not very common in other places, and vice versa.
I never ate Tex-Mex food until I crossed the Red River 30 years ago. What Texans call “barbecue” was a meal I never ate. My barbecue world was solely beef ribs; we were never offered sausage or pork ribs (or even beef brisket) because of the high concentration of Jewish people in the Midwest and the Kosher rule against the consumption of pig.
My father requested the same meal a majority of nights - a large sirloin steak cooked on a charcoal grill (Kingsford, thank you) with a large baked potato and a vegetable (mostly asparagus or broccoli). What he ate, we ate.
If you “blackened” a piece of meat, it meant the cook burned it. The only thing fried was chicken, not a quality beef of cowhide.
When the Trailways bus finally opened its door to drop me in Conroe, Texas. I partook of Tex-Mex cuisine (except for menudo or jalapenos) and South Texas Catholic Church Sunday barbecue (da best).
But my favorite meal was a chicken fried steak (until my cardiologist said otherwise). I will admit to slipping once in a blue moon. I had a fine example in Flagstaff, Arizona at the Grand Canyon Café on Route 66 on my recent trip. Out of five stars, this rated 3 ½ with a light crusting and the brown (not cream) gravy nestled under the steak, not on top.
But the best that ever was (in Texas or elsewhere) no longer exists. Even though I live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area (allegedly one of the steak capitals of the nation), I still try to find the kind of chicken fried steak to which I was introduced one Friday night on a road trip to Austin.
Between Austin and Brenham sits the oil boom-or-bust town of Giddings, a community symbolized the roller coaster dependency that Texas had on big oil in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a quiet town of 5,000 people in the early ‘70s until the state’s largest pocket of oil was discovered along the geological formation called the Austin Chalk. Soon the population and income level rose dramatically. Mercedes dealers and hotels began to populate the sleepy Washington County city. In five years, the bottom dropped out, only to see a mirage of hope in the late 1980s. Alas, oil still cost less than $20 per barrel for the longest time and most of Giddings died.
Among the casualties was Schubert’s Restaurant, a old quaint establishment on the eastern outskirts of town, next to the older Sands Motel. It had the kind of peeling linoleum floor that only small-town eateries possess (bless them).
It also served the finest chicken fried steak of them all. It was a real round steak, often with the bone embedded, hand-dipped in a perfect batter (not too thick) and fried to the right tone. When you took a bite, you tasted the meat more than the covering. It was not a bogus chicken fried steak, meaning a fried hamburger patty inundated with so much batter you can’t tell which is which. Nor was the meat so pounded (or laughingly tenderized) out of existence that the texture was gone.
Included was true milk gravy, with the proper amount of lumps, fresh-made rolls and a steaming baked potato or Texas fries from fresh cut spuds. A salad was offered in those perfectly cheap walnut bowls from a small salad bar; drinks came in the classic diner-type glasses.
A small steak covered a regular plate, the large saw its edges spill past the lip of a large platter. It was the best bargain in the Lone Star State, and customers ventured from all points to sup at their tables. Football teams, college and high school, went out of their way to stop at Schubert’s for a pre-game or post-game meal.
When oil went boom for the last time in 1990, Schubert’s silently closed its doors, and Texas was not a better place to live. No one in the Metroplex has been able to duplicate the quality, taste, value and atmosphere that caught my imagination and love as an imported Texan.
I continue my search, but places with claims of having the best chicken fried steak around are only pretenders to the throne. If you have a suggestion to help me complete my journey, contact me immediately.
I’d like to smile just one time after a meal. Quick, while the doctor’s not looking.