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chicken fried steak

Gabrielle Vernon-Melzer

Chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes and green beans is a Texan classic


Why chicken-fried steak, enchiladas and Frito pie are just so special to Texans

Back in college, I joined my roommates for Thanksgiving in Dallas. In one long night, we drove nine hours away from our little dorm-regulated apartment in New Mexico, breaking a few times for the foods they’d been missing while away at school. When we pulled into the driveway of my friend’s childhood home, it was 3 a.m. — and we were clutching Taco Bueno bags.

My strongest memory from that trip was stopping at a roadhouse right after we’d crossed the border into Texas. My roommate ordered a chicken-fried steak. Within a moment of its arrival to our table, she’d covered the entire thing in mashed potatoes. I watched as she methodically cut it into little squares.

With a grin, she said, “I’ve been eating it like this since I was a kid.”

In the decade since that roadhouse visit, the concept of food and its nostalgia-evoking properties has fascinated me. Ask a person their favorite food, and they have to consider. Ask them about the foods of their childhood and it’s like turning on a tap. One long-lost memory unearths another until finally, they’re calling a sibling to try and remember the name of a bakery that’s been closed forever.

Over the years, I’ve asked hundreds of people from around the world to talk to me about the foods they ate as children. Some have been in person, others online and through email. Some of the most interesting — and varied — responses have come out of the South. The range is incredible. References to some items (like cornbread, biscuits, and chicken and dumplings) stayed consistent across the entire region, but each state and even town brought about different answers.

When it came to Texas, the range of dishes mentioned were as vast as the state itself. It’s the home, of course, of Tex-Mex, it has its own style of barbecue and it has quite a few state-specific renditions of Southern classics. It is home to national brands like Dr. Pepper as well as tiny cafes and diners.
chicken fried steak
In my talks about the Lonestar State, certain dishes and restaurants were mentioned over and over again. For many, it seemed that chicken-fried steak best defined the taste of a Texan childhood. Sometimes just called “chicken fried,” or even CFS, this iconic dish is a source of comfort for many Texans, who recall eating it everywhere from cafeterias and diners to their grandmothers' kitchens. It is by far the most frequently mentioned dish I heard in all of my conversations about Texas, with some of its classic side dishes — green beans, fried okra and mashed potatoes — not far behind.

The origins of CFS can be traced back to the turn of the 20th century, where it most likely arrived in the U.S. via Austrian and German immigrants as wiener schnitzel, a fried veal dish. The Texas version evolved into something quite different. While wiener schnitzel is generally served with a small salad, rice or roast potatoes, chicken-fried steak is usually topped with a very Southern white sausage gravy.

Wienerschnitzel, it’s worth nothing, is also the name of a Texas chain with its own nostalgia-inducing properties. Many fondly remember enjoying its “shaker fries” and driving long distances just to find a location. As one Reddit user remarked, “It was special for us because it was about a 30 minute drive, something we just didn't do for food.” Despite the title, Wienerschnitzel doesn’t do chicken-fried steak, or even the O.G Austrian dish it’s named for. It's known for hot dogs — fantastic hot dogs, too.
enchiladasTexas-specific chain restaurants were a common reference throughout all of my interviews. There were quite a few mentions of Whataburger, something I certainly remember from childhood visits to my cousins' home in Corpus Christi. Many others cited Taco Villa as a favorite from back in the day, remembering its taco burger and heart-shaped tortilla chips.

On a different visit to Dallas, my best friend brought me to Spring Creek Barbeque, his favorite as a child. “When I was little, if I ever refused to eat,” he told me over a glass of sweet tea, “my parents would bring me here, and I would eat a whole plate down.”

Indeed, from Elgin hot sausage, brisket and ribs to even bologna, Texas has plenty to offer when it comes to barbecue, and for many children growing up there, there’s nothing better.

Many Texans have ingrained memories of Luby’s, a 65-year-old cafeteria that can be found operating throughout the state. A frequently mentioned item is its carrot and raisin salad, but one can find most Texas classics here. One friend, after listing all of his childhood favorites, capped it off by saying, “Pretty much, Luby’s.”

Luby’s is known for its enchiladas. This dish, which originated in Mexico, features corn tortillas wrapped around a filling, often meat, and smothered in a mole or chile pepper sauce. Across Texas, enchiladas filled with cheese and drowned in a piquant chili gravy.
frito pie
Chili gravy, which is made with broth, not meat, is not to be mistaken for chili con carne. The latter, of course, is a beef-based Tex-Mex classic that is now enjoyed all over the world. For some Texans, childhood memories of chili con carne come from a grandparent or family member. For others, it came from a can; Wolf brand has a rabid following and is a key ingredient in Frito pie. Others recall a childhood of eating chili made from Wick Fowler’s iconic 2-Alarm Chili kit.

Tex-Mex is frequently cooked at home. Many families eat dishes like King Ranch casserole for dinner, and for others, it isn't Sunday night without barbacoa. Pinto beans are common on many supper tables as well.

Versions of tamales have been eaten in Mesoamerica since ancient times. For centuries, tamales have been eaten around Christmas. In Texas, this is certainly true. Corn husk-wrapped, Tex-Mex tamales are a Yuletide tradition in the Lonestar State. For some families, takeout tamales on Christmas Eve was — and still is — a tradition upon itself. Others recalled eating them with saltines.

Quite a few Tex-Mex memories seemed to come from a specific restaurant called Monterey House. For many children, a trip to Monterey’s meant enchiladas, tamales and a very special bowl of tortilla chips. At the bottom of the chip basket, one would encounter a burnt-caramel Mexican candy called leche quemada. Obviously, this was a big hit with the kids.
ice cream
Sweets generally do well with little ones, no matter where they’re growing up. For Texans, many sugary memories come in the form of banana pudding, chocolate cream pie or classic Southern candies like the Stuckey’s Pecan Log.

Texas is home to some of the world's best pecans. For many, childhood memories include gathering, shelling and eating the nut fresh from the tree. One Redditor commented: “My grandparents have some land that has lots of pecan trees. Every fall we'd load up and go get bags and bags full of pecans. I'd get a happy tummy, and mom got good family photos.”

It’s no wonder that pecan pie was mentioned again and again in my interviews. For many, it was imperative to mention that it should always be topped with a scoop of Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla ice cream. Similarly, many remembered peach or blackberry cobbler as being incomplete if not a la mode.

Blue Bell Creamery was referenced consistently throughout my conversations. The 111-year-old creamery actually began as a butter company that churned out small batches of ice cream. Today, it’s regarded as the best ice cream in the state — and the closest replica one can find to old fashioned, hand-cranked ice cream.

Many people also mentioned Braum's Ice Cream, particularly its candy-speckled peppermint flavor. One Redditor commented, “I only realized after I'd left home that the peppermint ice cream that my dad said was ‘to settle his stomach’ was more because he didn't wanna share.”

In general, ice cream is a big ticket item for Texas, where premium dairy and persistent hot weather makes it the perfect spot to enjoy a frozen treat. However, ice cream's popularity in Texas is really due to old bans on alcohol. In dry counties, ice cream socials became a major event. For many people, gathering with their community to make ice cream is a cherished childhood memory.

In Robb Walsh’s comprehensive cookbook Texas Eats, he speaks with West Texas-bred photographer Paul S. Howell about his own memories of these ice cream socials, which were held at the local ranch house.

Howell said: “When several families gathered to brand cattle, there would be thirty or forty people. They got together in the afternoon. There would be four or five hand-cranked ice cream makers going. We always had several tubs of vanilla, usually some butter pecan, and strawberry or peach if the fruit was in season. If we were short on time, somebody would just run to the store and buy some Blue Bell.”

I’ve been to Texas many times, but I’ve never wanted to visit again as much as I do now. There are so many foods I want to try and places I’d like to visit. I don’t know when that will be, but I know that the first thing I’ll do is get a chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes.

Get the recipe for Tex-Mex Enchiladas with Chili Gravy
Get the recipe for Chicken-Fried Steak

Photo (chicken-fried steak and enchiladas): Gabrielle Vernon-Melzer
Photo (Frito pie): ccho/Flickr (license)
Photo (ice cream): Ramona King

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Gabby Vernon-Melzer is a food and travel writer originally from Boston, Massachusetts.  She loves to tell the stories of food in addition to creating unique and travel-inspired recipes.