Chicken Fried Steak & More at Cotton Patch Cafe
Texas cuisine has become linked with several regional dishes – barbecue, chili, and Tex-Mex to name a few – but Texans love chicken fried steak so much that Oct. 26 has been Texas Chicken Fried Steak Day since a Dallas man successfully campaigned for the state holiday in 2011. To celebrate the upcoming holiday and learn more about why Southern comfort food remains popular, we spoke to Eric Justice, executive chef at East Texas-based Cotton Patch Cafe.
Chicken Fried Tradition
Cotton Patch Cafe’s first location opened in Nacogdoches, Texas, in 1989, but the restaurant has since brought its menu to more than 45 locations across the state and nine locations in nearby Arkansas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. Customers flock to the restaurant for classic Southern comfort foods like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, chicken and dumplings, and meatloaf, but the chicken fried steak – a cut of beef that is tenderized, seasoned with flour, fried, and paired with pan gravy – remains a customer favorite.
It may be an indulgent meal now, but Justice explains that this “old school way of cooking a steak” was a necessity when it was invented way back when “cowboys” conjured images of men with hats and horses and not one of the state’s two NFL teams.
“It’s really just a great way to use a tougher piece of beef that you normally would have to slow cook or roast for a very long time to make it palatable,” says Justice. “By pounding it really thin and tenderizing it, and then deep frying it, you get a tender, great-tasting piece of meat without slow cooking.”
Making chicken fried steak might sound simple, but Justice stresses the importance of each step in the process, from tenderizing the meat to the oil it’s fried in.
“There’s a skill in tenderizing it to get it thin enough that it’s tender but that it doesn’t fall apart,” says Justice. “You can tenderize it so much or press it when you’re pressing it into flour that you go to cook it and it falls apart. But if you don’t tenderize it and press it enough, then it’s actually chewy, and that’s a fail. You definitely don’t want a chewy chicken fried steak.”
Using the right seasoned flour is key to making a good chicken fried steak, but how the seasoned flour is applied also impacts the final product.
“You want to create what I call layers in the flour,” says Justice. “You create layers in the crunch on the outside by pressing down on it and getting different layers of the breading and batter on there. It’s definitely a breading skill.”
Frying the steak is a “pretty straight forward” process, but chefs will end up with subpar results if it isn’t fried in fresh oil.
“We’re pretty particular about keeping our oil fresh because that’s the cooking method,” says Justice. “If you’re not using fresh oil, it’s just not going to taste great.”
Familiar Food, Fresh Flavors
Although chicken fried steak is a customer favorite, with an estimated one in three tables ordering it, the popularity of Cotton Patch Cafe’s other fried options led to the restaurant’s “Chicken Fried Road Trip” promotion. The annual promotion offers daily deals on spiced-up versions of the fried foods customers love as well as new items only available for a limited time.
“Last year, one of the highlight items was the chicken fried bacon I made, but we also just highlighted our existing items and promoted them throughout the week,” says Justice. “We promoted chicken fried steak and chicken fried chicken on Mondays, and then we promoted chicken fried bacon on another day. Then we did our tenders, but we made a couple of unique sauces and glazes to go with them.”
Those daily deals pair traditional menu items with new flavors, including maple, Nashville hot, and Buffalo glazes and jalapeno gravy made by infusing Cotton Patch’s standard pan gravy with roasted jalapenos.
“It’s really about taking the dishes our guests already love us for and giving them different ways to eat it,” says Justice. “By doing that every day with something different, people can come in on different days of the week and try something unique.”
When it comes to offering new items or spicing up traditional favorites, Cotton Patch’s culinary team always keeps their customers’ expectations in mind.
“We want them to have some level of comfort with it, but also push the envelope a little bit,” says Justice. “They love chicken fried stuff, but they hadn’t had chicken fried bacon. This past summer, we did slow-cooked ribs, and we had not done ribs before. It fits our concept and people loved them, but we also did a chicken fried rib at the same time as an appetizer, so if you didn’t want to invest or commit to a full rack or half-rack of ribs, you could get some chicken fried ribs for the table and share.”
As a native Texan who grew up enjoying Southern comfort food, Justice understands what it is about those dishes that resonates with Cotton Patch Cafe’s customers.
“Southern comfort food, to me, means things that I would have eaten in my home or at a small-town cafe,” says Justice. “A lot of times comfort food is a lot more value-based [because] it’s filling. It’s not always the prettiest food, but you’re happy to see it on your plate because you know it’s going to be full of flavor. They’re not the lightest of dishes, so there’s a high satisfaction level on it.”
The restaurant does have lighter grilled options on the menu to appeal to diners seeking a lower-calorie meal, but most customers continue to choose Cotton Patch Cafe to indulge in the comfort foods they love.
“When people want to have their cheat day [or] when people want Southern comfort food, frankly, calories aren’t really a question,” says Justice. “There’s no way to lighten up a chicken fried steak, because then it’s just not going to taste good. When it comes to those types of items, we’re going to be more true to the cuisine and the brand than worry about the calories.”