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Stepping Up to the Plate

Texas comfort food entices with a variety of cross-cultural influences
Written by Robb Walsh.

Ray's Drive Inn, a west San Antonio landmark since 1956, opened with a menu of fried chicken and burgers, but quickly became famous for puffy tacos. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)

Driving around the state researching Texas food history for my new cookbook, Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook, I found out that a heritage food revival is colliding with new cultural currents in the Lone Star State—resulting in all kinds of delicious combinations and mash-ups.


While looking for handmade hamburgers in College Station, for example, I came across a pan-Asian restaurant called Rosie’s Pho. The place was packed with Aggies eating the Vietnamese poor-boy sandwiches called banh mi, the beef noodle soup called pho, and the latest nationwide trend in Vietnamese food—Asian/Cajun boiled crawfish in insanely spicy garlic butter.

Rosie's Pho in College Station features a diverse menu of Pan-Asian specialties. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)

Successful chefs look at ethnic and hybrid cuisines, fine-dining fare, and folk foods as related parts of a whole.

Although fajitas are pretty common in Texas, the ones at Himalaya Restaurant in the Mahatma Gandhi District in Houston have a distinctly South Asian spin. The skirt steak is seasoned with curry powder and the thinly sliced, grilled strips of meat are served with a flavorful cucumber-yogurt dip called raita.

“It’s steak tikka on the menu, but everyone calls it Pakistani fajitas,” Himalaya chef/owner Kaiser Laskari says. “Indian chapati bread and wheat tortillas are essentially the same thing.”

You’ll find the whole gamut of Texas cooking at Underbelly on Lower Westheimer in Houston. Waygu beef is served Thai-style on satay sticks, the pork schnitzel comes with Teutonic caraway-flavored braised red cabbage, there’s a chicken salad tossed with the Vietnamese dipping sauce called nuoc mam cham, and the most popular item on the menu is spicy Korean braised goat and dumplings. The wall near the entrance to the dining room bears a photo collage of local, mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants that serve as inspiration. When you get your check, there’s a note that says, “Before you come back to Underbelly, please visit one of these places.”

But Underbelly’s chef Chris Shepherd is as interested in Texas heritage cooking as he is in ethnic cuisines. 
His East Texas chicken and biscuits are served with lots of gravy in a black cast-iron skillet. His shrimp with pimiento-cheese grits is sensational. And one of his most popular desserts is a 19th-Century favorite, vinegar pie. Shepherd describes his cuisine as a “refined take on Houston’s New American Creole cuisine.”  

Creolization is the blending of cultures, and because Texas has become a magnet for new immigrants, the state is emerging as one of the most dynamic food scenes in America. Established cultures and newly arrived ones are rubbing off on each other. Of course, immigrants have always brought a taste of their homelands to foods found in Texas.

Take a classic ingredient like Gulf blue crab. Once upon a time, Texans ate simple boiled crabs or enjoyed crabmeat in a salad. Then in the 1930s, Cajun restaurants in Port Arthur made barbecued crab famous. The spice-dipped crab dish is still a favorite at Sartin’s in Nederland and Stingaree in Crystal Beach. Take the ferry over to Galveston Island, and you can eat your crabs stuffed and baked Southern-style at Clary’s, in a Louisiana bisque at Gaido’s, or in an Italian cioppino at the Gumbo Bar. And when you’re in Austin, don’t miss the Indian curried Gulf crab cakes at the Clay Pit.

In Houston, you can get your crab Yucatan-style in cocteles campechanas at Tampico or Goode Company Seafood; Vietnamese-style at the Asian/Cajun hybrid Crawfish & Noodles in Chinatown; or with a Central American spin at Reef, where chef Bryan Caswell serves his jumbo crab cakes with a Salvadoran-style pickled vegetable slaw. I like them with a little of his Thai/Cajun Sriracha-citrus remoulade on the side.

Of course, ethnic mash-ups are nothing new in Texas cooking; Tex-Mex is the oldest hybrid cuisine in the country. One classic example is the San Antonio puffy taco, whose shells get deep-fried instead of cooked on a traditional comal. I got carried away with my research in the Alamo City—I ate puffy tacos at Ray’s Drive Inn, Henry’s Puffy Tacos, Jacala, Los Barrios, and Sammy’s Mexican Restaurant #2—and all of them were heavenly.

Stacked enchiladas are another old-fashioned Tex-Mex dish. Today, the best ones in Texas may be the enchiladas served at the original Leal’s in Muleshoe, which are smothered in brick-red chile sauce. It’s the tortillas that make them special: Leal’s makes their own from fresh, stone-ground masa, in a factory right down the street.

The basic recipe for old-fashioned chile con queso includes several kinds of cheese, chiles, tomatoes, and chicken stock—but the secret ingredient is American processed cheese. At the late, great Palmetto Inn, a popular Texas chain from the 1960s, cheese enchiladas topped with chile con carne and chile con queso were listed on the menu as Enchiladas #10—popularly known as the “Heart Attack Special.”

The Palmetto and other small-town restaurants fell victim to changing tastes and progress when the interstate highway system passed them by. Today, driving the old roads, like Route 66 through the Panhandle, is a trip down restaurant memory lane. The Old Route 66 Association of Texas is a nonprofit that’s helping restore iconic restaurants and promote tourism on the old highway. 
Some Route 66 classics, like the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, successfully relocated to the interstate. While I have never ordered the “free” 72-ounce steak (it’s only free if you eat it all), I have considered trying the feat while savoring a Big Texan chicken-fried steak.

Heitmiller Steakhouse near Waco focuses on steakhouse standards like T-bones and chicken-fried steaks. (Photo by Laurie Smith)CFS was a big seller at a spot called the Big Spring Phillips 66 Truck Stop Café, which was run for many years by the parents of Texas celebrity chef Stephan Pyles. He was thinking of his parents’ café—and of the popular Big Spring dance hall The Stampede—when he named his new Dallas restaurant Stampede 66. The menu features new spins on classics like “Frito” chili pie and Helen Corbitt’s popovers, the latter made famous by Neiman Marcus’ Zodiac Room in the 1950s and 1960s.

Tim Byres, who once worked with Stephan Pyles, won Food & Wine magazine’s 2012 People’s Choice Award for Best New Chef in the Southwest. Tim Byres’ motto is “heritage inspired.” He is best known for his creative take on Texas barbecue at Smoke Restaurant in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, where the menu includes such items as “Pulled All Natural Whole Hog, NC Style with Blue Cheese Slaw” and “Texas BBQ Coffee Cured Beef Brisket with Bread/Butter Pickles & Mustard Seed Potato Salad.” 
At Chicken Scratch, Byres’ new “slow casual” restaurant a block down Fort Worth Avenue from Smoke, he cooks hand-battered yardbirds in old-fashioned cast-iron skillets. When I stopped by, he was serving the fried chicken with housemade pickles, fresh-baked biscuits, collard greens, and mashed potatoes slathered with a gravy made with the crispy bits from the skillet.

There was a pile of cookbooks high on a shelf in the dining room, and all of them were collections of heritage recipes. Byres tells me he is writing his own cookbook, which will emphasize the culture and history of Texas food.

I wonder what Byres’ book will have to say about the biggest Texas folk-food cliché of them all—chicken-fried steak. Lately, CFS has faded in popularity due in large part to the frightening statistics of its nutritional profile. These days, it’s easier to find a plate of tofu than a chicken-fried steak in health-conscious cities like Austin. The situation isn’t much better in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. But as Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy told me, the best chicken-fried steaks in Texas are found in small-town cafés west of Fort Worth.

While researching Texas Eats, I took Kennedy’s advice and drove around to several towns between Denton and Abilene to try chicken-fried steaks.

Paradise, Texas, sounded like a nice place. So I stopped for lunch at the Finish Line Café, the oldest café in town. “When I’m going to eat a chicken-fried steak, I have Granny make it,” the waitress whispered. Her mother and her grandma were both working in the kitchen, but while her mom dipped the steak in buttermilk between flour coatings, her Granny added beaten egg to the buttermilk for a richer batter. The chicken-fried steak in Paradise pretty much confirmed Kennedy’s advice: If you want a great chicken-fried steak, pull into a small-town café on this stretch west of the Metroplex.

In my hometown of Houston, I usually enjoy the classic chicken-fried steak at Frank’s Americana with a Texas microbrewery beer. But I also like the upscale chicken-fried steak at Ouisie’s Table, which comes with black-eyed peas, mustard greens, and an elegant corn pudding, along with mashed potatoes and pepper gravy. Ouisie’s also serves an Axis venison chicken-fried steak that pairs beautifully with a Burgundy or Pinot Noir.

For decades, well-meaning promoters of gourmet cooking have told us that “Texas cuisine is so much more than barbecue, Tex-Mex, and chicken-fried steak.” They assumed that building a fine-dining scene in Texas meant persuading the public to abandon folk foods in favor of something more sophisticated.

But many of the newly successful chefs in Texas have a different approach: They look at ethnic and hybrid cuisines, fine-dining fare, and folk foods as related parts of a whole. And they are taking the culinary culture of Texas to amazing heights.

From the December 2012 issue.

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