Food & Drink

A heaping helping of chicken-fried steak memories

What to use to make Chicken Fried Steak
What to use to make Chicken Fried Steak Modesto Bee

The most important part of chicken-fried steak may be the memories.

We didn't know what to expect when we asked you to share your favorite recollections — good or bad — of eating chicken-fried steak.

You took us on a trip down memory lane, recalling great meals and the places connected to them. Here's what you said:

My grandmother cooked at a cafe/bar that she and my mother owned in Simm's Station (between Escalon and Manteca) in the early '60s. My favorite was her chicken-fried steak. Along with the steak, you could get salad, potatoes, a vegetable and french bread for 94 cents! Her secret was the generous dollop of garlic butter melting atop the steak.

— Linda Van Unen, Oakdale

It was my first day as a boarder at a Catholic high school. As luck would have it, I had a field trip after school so I missed dinner with my fellow students. The nuns however had saved dinner for me and placed me at the end of a long cafeteria table in the dark dining hall. They solemnly stood at the other end while the cook brought me my dinner of chicken- fried steak. As I nervously cut into the rubberized meat, my fork slipped and the steak flew down the length of the table like a hockey puck flying to the field goal. The nuns did not flinch while they dodged the projectile. As my mother's words of "never wasting food" echoed in my mind, I knew this was some kind of test. I calmly got up and retrieved the hockey puck, placed it back on my plate, finished carving into it and devoured all evidence of its existence. I have never since cared for chicken-fried steak but I do believe I passed the test.

— Cyndy Davis, Oakdale

Let me tell you about chicken-fried steak. I've eaten it in Turlock, Modesto, Oregon, Washington, several places in North Carolina, in Kingman, Ariz., British Columbia, and San Antonio, Texas. Now a guy recalls road trips by the places that serve good eats, but my wife will swear that my landmarks have Dairy Queen written all over them.

While visiting the San Antonio region around Kerrville, we took a long drive through all the hill country to view and photograph the blue bonnets and many other beautiful wildflowers that make the pastures and roadways so beautiful in early spring.

It was lunchtime when we were driving thorough this small town in Llano County. The center of town was a city park of one square block with a feed store on one corner and a hardware store across from the park and a non-assuming restaurant on the other side of the park.

Well, the restaurant had a banner on the window that the Kiwanis were meeting there for lunch that day. I figured that a Kiwanis member probably knew more about good food than truckers who follow each other into the places they see other truckers dining.

There was a lot of happy noises and laughter coming from the side room, so we told the waitress we'd like the most popular plate that was ordered by the Kiwanis.

You guessed it, it turned out to be the best-tasting chicken-fried steak that we had ever been served. We were offered Texas pecan pie with our meal, all included at a price of $6 each. Now I know why pecan pie and chicken-fried steak are the Texas state dishes.

— Jack R. Hansen, Turlock

My chicken-fried steak story is from Louisville, Ky.

It was back in 1993. My mother and I decided to take a road trip back to the Midwest to visit relatives. We were going to go see my sister and her family in North Carolina first, then visit friends who had moved to Louisville, then on to Illinois before returning back to California.

When we were visiting in Louisville, our friends were going to take us to dinner at a nearby corner tavern/restaurant. Well, when we walked in, it was a bit outdated ... wood panels on the walls, tables and chairs that looked like they bought them from the bingo parlor and a "tuck 'n' roll" bar in the corner. I decided to order chicken-fried steak. When they brought the meal out, it was heaping! Mounds of mashed potatoes and tons of homemade gravy. I took one bite of this chicken- fried steak and I was in heaven.

This steak just melted in your mouth, but the outside was so crispy. It was perfect! The next night we went downtown to a fancy restaurant, but I told my mother I would have been just as happy to go back to the tavern, which we did the following night. I raved about this chicken-fried steak to everyone.

Two years later, I returned to Louisville and I have to tell you my mouth was watering just thinking about that scrumptious meal. When I inquired about going back to the tavern, our friend said that they had closed their doors. I could feel the scream in my throat! What a bummer! I always said that if I had money to be foolish with, I would go back to Louisville, run an ad asking who used to cook there and then hire them for one night to make that for me again! It's almost sinful to be so obsessed over a chicken-fried steak. However, I still keep searching for a duplicate of that same version.

— Penny Williamson, Ceres

My parents and my husband and I grew up in Nebraska, where chicken-fried steak was and is a staple — well-loved and always made fresh.

The four of us have lived all over the U.S.A. and have traveled by car quite a bit as well. For my parents and my husband, chicken-fried steak is comfort food and a reminder of home. When traveling, my folks always would ask if the chicken-fried steak on the menu was made fresh, and they often heard "yes" only to be disappointed. One time, a wise waitress said, "Yes, it's made fresh out of the box that came from the freezer." She knew the difference between fresh and fresh!!

We rarely got a good chicken-fried steak until we came to Modesto and happened into Mike's Roadhouse for a hamburger. And guess what we found on the menu?! Chicken-fried steak. Believe it or not, it is fresh, made from scratch. The huge platter is enough for two to split and comes with vegetables, mashed potatoes and two kinds of gravy.

So once or twice a month on Saturday or Sunday morning, we head to Mike's for our chicken-fried steak fix. They don't even give us menus anymore. They just start cooking when they see us come in the door.

If you print recipes for chicken-fried steak, that's all well and good but we'll take the easy way and go to Mike's and recommend it to all your readers.

— Paula Morris, Modesto

Our favorite chicken-fried steak memories are from the '50s and '60s when we still traveled rural Nebraska regularly by car and knew just about everyone in the county.

The best chicken-fried steak we ever had was made by Don and Pauline Nicholson at the Tryon (Nebraska) Café (now long retired), and, boy, their pie was good too!

The next best was by Swede and Delores Daly at the Arthur (Nebraska) Café. Neither town had 100 people but cafes were always busy with travelers on the two-lane roads.

When traveling around the country, we would always ask if the chicken-fried steak on the menu was fresh and we were usually told yes only to be disappointed when it got to the table. One day a waitress explained to us that "nothing here is from scratch, honey, it's all 'fresh' out of the freezer." The question we should have been asking was, "Is it made from scratch!"

We've lived in Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Illinois, Washington state and Texas and nothing compared to Tryon Café.

Of course, Alice makes a mean chicken-fried steak, but who needs to go to all that work when you can go to Mike's Roadhouse here in Modesto, which has a delicious chicken-fried steak made from from scratch.

— Alice and Clayton Dobbins, Riverbank

(The Dobbins are Paula Morris' parents.)

I grew up in Beaumont, Texas, and lived there until I left for college at age 18. My mom was the best cook in town! All my friends loved her Southern hospitality and homemade cooking, but especially her chicken-fried steak. She would soak the meat in milk and egg before dredging it in flour and spices. It smelled so good — and my mom made delicious gravy, from the drippings. She used an iron skillet with hot oil to fry the steak. I haven't had this amazing dish since I left Texas in 1990 and moved to Modesto. That is probably a good thing, since chicken-fried steak is not the healthiest choice for the waistline — and no one else's recipe can compare to my mom's cooking anyway!

— Mandy Walsh, Modesto

In 1945, Uncle Ray and wife Pearl planned a trip back home to Kansas. He wanted to see his mother, my grandma, and other relatives. I was just 15 and thrilled to pieces at being asked to go along. In the three days back, on the southern route and three days to come home, on the northern route, I had six lunches and six dinners, all of them chicken-fried steak. At every cafe or diner we ate at, the chicken-fried steak was delicious. After all that, I still love this meal, although now, because of the gravy, fried chicken and potatoes, it is a no-no for me. Remembering that trip so long ago, I can still taste those mouth-watering meals. My uncle teased me for years afterward about my love for chicken-fried steak.

— Kay Cabassi, Modesto
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