The best chicken fried steak in Paradise looked as if it were covered in corn flakes, and it came with peppery cream gravy on the side. It was the third steak I'd finished at the Finish Line Cafe in Paradise, Texas, and the folks at the next table were starting to shoot me strange looks.
What had brought me to the Finish Line was not just a deep love for CFS (as the dish is often called here in Texas) but also a strong hunch. Driving around the state researching an article about chicken fried steak for the Houston Press, I'd begun to suspect that you could get a great version in just about any small-town cafe west of Dallas and north of Waco—an area of Texas I'd come to dub the Chicken Fried Steak Belt. I decided to test this theory by picking a random town along my planned route. Paradise (population 519) sounded like as good a spot as any, and the Finish Line Cafe was the most popular place in town. I would soon learn that three generations of women run the Finish Line: waitress Jenny Herrington is the daughter of the owner and head cook, Rayanne Gentry, whose own mother, Marie Brown, also works in the kitchen. Each woman has a different idea about chicken fried steak.
There are three categories of CFS in Texas: German, cowboy, and Southern. Each style has its proponents who believe it's the original. According to Jane and Michael Stern's book Eat Your Way Across the U.S.A. (Broadway Books, 1997), "the chicken-fried steak was a Depression-era invention of Hill Country German-Texans". German-style CFS is made of pounded-thin beef cube steak, dredged in bread crumbs or cracker meal and fried crisp like schnitzel.
The cowboy version is often called a pan-fried steak in West Texas, where it's the most popular. It's said that chuck wagon cooks, who tenderized their steaks by beating them with anything handy, would simply dredge them in flour before frying them to a crisp.
Southern-style CFS has a thick, crunchy crust that looks like the coating on a piece of Southern fried chicken. It's the most commonly found in East Texas, where cotton plantations thrived before the Civil War. In claiming this rich style as the original, adherents have the advantage of pointing to the word chicken in CFS's name and to the cookbooks dating all the way back to the early 1800s that contain recipes for cutlets dredged in flour and dipped in egg batter.
There was a CFS sandwich and a pan-fried steak on the Finish Line's menu. The latter, a juicy cube steak with a flavorful crust and a side of creamy gravy, was a beautiful thing. That there even was a third steak came as a surprise: noting my unusual interest in CFS, Jenny Herrington suggested that I try her grandmother's version. To make this off-menu variety, Ms. Brown dredges her steak in seasoned flour, then in a batter of eggs and buttermilk, then in the flour again.
With an awesome, ripply crust that shattered when I bit through to the tender steak, Granny's version turned out to be a solid example of a classic Southern-style CFS, and the clear winner.