Living in southern California my whole life has definitely had its perks. I’ve never had to buy a proper coat because I don’t know what rain is, I can always call bullshit when the al pastor in my taco wasn’t spit-roasted, and I have the luxury of hating beaches because I’ve lived near them for so long.
Then there are the downsides. I have no idea how to hail a cab, I’m completely screwed when water actually does fall from the sky, and I’ve been completely left out of the non-west-coast food tradition of frying red meat and slathering it in gravy.
I’d trade all the beaches in the world for a slab of quality chicken-fried steak.
Most of my fried beef experiences have come at the underwhelming hands of late-night chain diners, where a hash-slinger throws a frozen, pre-formed disc of mechanically tenderized cow into a vat of hot oil and tops it with a mixture of cornstarch and milk that only the desperate consider gravy. That stuff is awesome in its own way—but it’s infinitely tastier coming from your own hands.
Chicken fried steak generally starts off with a piece of cube steak, which is actually top round that’s been tenderized with a giant spike machine that tears up all the fat and connective tissue until it’s edible. But, if you buy pre-made cube steak, you’re generally getting the worst of the worst quality. To make your own version, you have to become the tenderizing machine.
If you use a typical meat mallet, you’re not going to get that chewed-up look of authentic cube steak, which is actually the key to getting maximal surface area for flour coverage. Instead, to simulate mechanical tenderization, tape together 10 or 15 wooden kebab skewers, lay out a piece of top round on a cutting board, and start stabbing the meat violently until the whole surface is flattened and punctured—really get medieval on that thing.
Throw some flour in a bowl and season it up with salt pepper, paprika—whatever you want, really. In another bowl, pour in some buttermilk and a liberal dose of hot sauce. Take that beaten-up piece of top round, dredge in flour, dip it in buttermilk, then dust in in flour again. Make sure to really get the flour in there after the buttermilk dip. Dust in a few times, then mash the flour in with your hands, and redust to ensure the coating fully sticks.
Heat about an inch of vegetable oil on high in a shallow pan—preferably a cast iron skillet. You can deep-fry chicken fried steak—à la Denny’s—but shallow frying lets you develop some extra browning by allowing direct meat-to-pan contact. Browning equals flavor.
When the oil starts shimmering, throw in the meat, fry for three or four minutes on one side, then flip it over using tongs, and fry for the same amount of time on the other side. Take the steak out of the pan after it turns a deep golden-brown and lay it on a paper towel to let the oil drain.
For a quick, traditional gravy, melt a tablespoon of butter in a saucepan on medium heat, add a tablespoon of flour, cook for a minute or two, then pour in a cup of milk, and season heavily with salt and pepper. Cook it until it has gravy-like consistency, then slather it on top.
You’ll never have to rely on mediocre diner chicken-fried steak again. Unless it’s 2 AM and you’ve been drinking—then you just do you.
Photos by Josh Scherer