If you Google “best chicken fried steak in Texas,” nearly every list that pops up starts with Mary’s Cafe in tiny Strawn, midway between Fort Worth and Abilene.
I’m camping nearby, so I decided to find out for myself if it’s worth the buzz.
Spoiler alert: It is the best. Also, you can buy a T-shirt that says “Hobble in, gobble up, waddle out.”
Most chicken fried steak I’ve eaten is dipped in thick battter and plunged into a vat of hot oil. The result looks something like a whole flounder, fried then hit by a handful of tartar sauce. You can’t really taste the steak for all the crunchy batter. And the gravy is very white and thick but not very flavorful.
The chicken fried steak at Mary’s is pan fried, not deep fried. There is no overpowering crunchy crust, which allows the true flavor of the meat, which is nicely tenderized, to shine through. And it doesn’t arrive doused in gravy. You spoon it on yourself.
Mary Tretter opened the place in 1986, the same year I graduated from Texas A&M University. It’s no frills and basic. I settled in at a four-top in a room decorated with military posters. Two other solo diners got tables near me, and an elderly couple sat behind me.
Every single person in the room ordered the chicken fried steak, size small. (A medium and, God help us, large, are also available, but I can’t imagine who could finish that. I managed to get only two-thirds of the way through the small.) The small costs $19.99, which seemed like a lot. But the plate came with an entire soup cup filled with cream gravy (the guy at the next table ordered extra gravy!), a side of pinto beans or green beans (salad is usually available, but a sign on the wall said that lettuce had gotten too expensive and salads were temporarily off the menu), and choice of a baked potato, fries or mashed potatoes (I picked mashed.) the steak itself arrived perched atop two half slices of Texas toast.
I’m pretty sure butter was high on the ingredient list. And I tasted a good measure of salt, but I’m sensitive to that. Still, it was delicious. The mashers were chunky, not whipped to oblivion. The gravy was good, in moderation. The steak was sublime, tender and flavorful, not the usual shoe leather hiding in a cloak of fried batter.
The only one that comes close is the chicken fried steak at the J and P Bar ‘n Grill in Comstock, west of Del Rio. That one is deep fried and comes with brown mushroom gravy, which sounds weird and will make traditionalists scoff, but inspired a happy dance when I tasted it.
I washed Mary’s version down with a giant cup of unsweetened tea, just like every other place in Texas used to serve.
The menu also includes quail kabobs, burgers, and chicken strips, but why bother? Just order the chicken fried steak.
I couldn’t finish mine, and the waitress preemptively came by with a Styrafoam to-go box, which I declined since I’m camping in my camper van, Vincent VanGo. (I hate single-use Styrafoam, too.) I was truly tempted by the lemon merengue pie, but just didn’t have space for it. At least not this trip.
Next time I’m bringing a friend and sharing.