A Letter from Fillmore, Utah In Search of the Elusive Chicken Fried Steak

August 09, 1992|By ANN LOLORDO | ANN LOLORDO,Ann Lolordo is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

FILLMORE, UTAH — Fillmore, Utah--The Cowboy Cafe was just what we were looking for, a local restaurant with cheap eats just a couple miles off the interstate to Salt Lake City.

A gas station attendant along U.S. 15 had recommended it, and while he didn't eat out much, he knew a good meal could be had at the Cowboy. Nothing fancy, but good food.

We found the Cowboy with little trouble. It was the only restaurant among the storefronts on Main Street in this town of 2,430. When my husband and I walked in, we could see the special on the board: Chicken Fried Steak.

Was it chicken? Was it steak? We didn't know. But it was what everyone seemed to be ordering. The special promised potatoes, a vegetable and the main dish with "country gravy." I ordered it. Jane and Michael Stern, the chroniclers of back road eateries, would be proud.

As we traveled through Utah, Arizona and Nevada, logging more than 2,000 miles in a royal blue convertible, we scanned menus far and wide for "chicken fried." It's what we believed to be classic local fare, a culinary oddity (definitely not chicken and not quite a steak).

Kelly Carter, owner of the Cowboy Cafe, put it on her menu after finding it on the tables of other restaurants in the area. It's her most popular dish.

At Houston's Trail's End Restaurant in Kanab, an old uranium mining town straddling the Arizona-Utah border, chicken fried steak is permanently on special. It is hand-breaded, fried tender and covered with home-made country gravy.

"I get it every time I pass through [town]," said one patron with a belly big enough to prove his point.

Everyone, from the local Micheolob man to German tourists, orders the $6.95 special.

"I've had chicken fried other places and they're not as good," said waitress Suzette Bunting, whose sincerity was considerably more authentic than the gun holstered on her hip.

The reason?

"Our homemade gravy," Ms. Bunting said quite plainly.

The Houston family prides itself on serving up "fresh" chicken fried steak. "A lot of places you go, it's frozen," the waitress added.

Emma Houston learned how to make chicken fried steak from her grandmother, Elizabeth Orton, of Panguitch, Utah. Mrs. Houston and her husband Bob opened the restaurant 17 years ago. It's a monument to everything kitsch in the West -- the waitresses dress up like boot-stomping cowgirls; the walls are -- decorated with likenesses of the Duke and replicas of Remington sculptures of bronze ponies and Indians; the salad bar is served from a chuck wagon.

But the chicken fried is authentic -- New York sirloin cut, pounded into thin slices, which are then breaded and fried to a golden brown. The gravy is Mr. Houston's variation on traditional country milk gravy.

"My husband makes 10 gallons of that every morning," Mrs. Houston said, referring to the bowls of creamy, bacon-flavored gravy arriving at nearby tables. "He brings it up from scratch. It is pretty much a specialty. A lot of people who come in here and order it [chicken fried steak] think it's chicken, especially people from the East. "

We knew better. Onward. There was more chicken fried steak on the horizon.

After hiking through Bryce Canyon, a spectacular fairyland of mauve, white and terra cotta stone pinnacles, turrets and towers, we headed for the visitor's center and a recommendation for a nearby restaurant where the locals eat.

Marta Peterson, the wife of the park ranger and a volunteer at the center, assured us we would find nothing out of the ordinary. Steaks, burgers, typical American fare. I inquired about chicken fried steak; certainly that was indigenous to Utah?

"Oh noooooooo," she insisted. "It's more from the south. Whenever my mother-in-law comes out, she fixes a whole big chicken fried steak, corn bread stuffing, a little okra on the side, purple whole peas."

And where does your mother-in-law live, Mrs. Peterson was asked.

Gladewater, Texas.

Hmmm.

In the gem shop outside Bryce Canyon, Ed Jonson stood at a polishing machine, running a nugget of lime green stone under ** the wheel. This was his summer job. Before he retired, Mr. Jonson ran a restaurant in Yuma, Arizona for 25 years. Did he ever serve chicken fried steak?

Sure did. Take a fresh round steak, cut across the grain, run it through a cuber. Douse it in an egg and buttermilk wash and then dip it in cracker meal before frying. Mr. Johnson had his own version of the origins of chicken fried steak.

"The old cowboys, after the Civil War, they were the original Southerners. They brought it with them. But boy, did the Southwest claim it," said Mr. Jonson. "I truly think it goes back 100 years. This is what I've heard, and it makes sense."

By the end of our trip, we had driven more than 1,000 miles through Nevada, Utah and Arizona, looking for chicken fried steak wherever and whenever we could.

When we arrived home in Baltimore, we mentioned this exotic rTC fare to friends, quizzing them on the nature of this delicacy, fowl or beef, only to discover that the answer could readily be found in the nearest Denny's. The restaurant chain, headquartered in South Carolina, sells two pieces of chicken fried steak, potato, vegetable and bread for $5.80.

"And you also get soup or salad with that," a Denny's employee told me.

This disappointing news sent me to "The Dictionary of American Food & Drink." It said "chicken-fried steak" is a specialty of the South, Southwest and Midwest. "Chicken-fried steak is of rather recent origins," wrote author John F. Mariani, "probably the 1950s, for it is rarely mentioned in any American cookbooks before the 1970s."

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