Chicken-Fried Vision Quest
One Southern Lady's Search for Seattle's Best Chicken-Fried Steak
Sometimes the most decadent and satisfying culinary experiences are the ones that bypass sophistication—delicate flavors, expert plating, wine pairings—to hit the sweet spot in your frontal lobe where the quotidian flavors and textures that speak to childhood reside. As a kid growing up in Katy, Texas, chicken-fried steak day in the lunchroom came twice a week, and I reminisce more than is probably healthy about using a doughy roll to sop up the final globs of country gravy that clung to my hard plastic tray (not to mention about the joy of washing down spoonfuls of mealy mashed potatoes with chocolate milk). I still thoroughly relish each bite of Banquet's $3 TV-dinner version of the dish, which speaks to the sophistication of my palate, sure, but I know a good—or a cruddy—chicken-fried steak when I meet one. I'm Texan. A certain percentage of my blood is gravy, so if CFS is on a menu, dang if I ain't gettin' it. Gotta keep the levels up.
When I moved to the Northwest in 2003, I was pretty sure I wouldn't find anything that would measure up to the caliber of the chicken-fried steak in Texas. My assumption was quickly dispelled at the 5 Point Cafe (415 Cedar St, 448-9993), which became the site of frequent Steak 'n' Scotch™ lunches. The chicken-fried steak at the 5 Point ($9.99) is beautiful—mountainous mashed potatoes on the side, thick batter, and perfectly mealy, not-too-stringy meat that's as big as a large-size human hand, often flopping over the edge of the plate. What makes the dish here so thoroughly enjoyable isn't just the sloppy, generously proportioned nature of the CFS itself, but the comfort the mild seediness of the 5 Point brings at midday, when it is bathed in the full glory of a half-sunny, half-rainy, all-telling Seattle light. Sandwiched between seasoned adults who're drowning their sorrows or feeding their livers' habits, one can't help but feel contemplative. Every bite counts. Chew slowly.
The second place in Seattle that excels along these same lines is, not surprisingly, beloved Lower Queen Anne dive the Mecca Cafe (526 Queen Anne Ave N, 285-9728). One of the city's oldest bars and diners (and formerly owned by the geniuses of CFS at the 5 Point), Mecca has got comfort food and stiff drinks down to a science. Sliding into a booth and tucking into the chicken-fried steak ($9.84) is, in my humble opinion, one of the best dining experiences Seattle has to offer. Again, the CFS is served with near carelessness (much like the lunch lady's presentation) and is accompanied by the creamiest mashed potatoes in the city. You even have your choice of gravy! Country? Sausage? Brown? Turkey? Is there a bad answer? No (although I always pick the country variety). The steak's crust is thick and crisp and floury, and the aforementioned gravy is rarely overpoured, one of the few actions that can ruin a good chicken-fried steak via uncrispifying the crust. Like rainbows or hugs, gravy is one of those things in life that is best experienced somewhat sparingly, if only so that you realize what a wonder it is. Mecca knows this.
One place that doesn't know this, sadly, is Linda's Tavern on Capitol Hill (707 E Pine St, 325-1220). There's simply nothing decent about Linda's chicken-fried steak. It's not salty enough. The crust is crumbly and unflavored. The vegetables and potatoes alongside the steak are watery and canned tasting. There is no heft or soul to it whatsoever. One can, and should, find better options in the frozen aisle at QFC. At Roxy's Diner in Fremont (462 N 35th St, 632-3963), the breakfast CFS and eggs is enough to feed at least three. The eggs (I got mine scrambled) were buttery and appropriately light, providing a great foil to the well-battered steak exterior. Roxy's does, however, commit the sin of overgravying, and the steak itself was a workout to cut.
It left me pining for my very most favoritest CFS in Seattle, that of Cyndy's House of Pancakes (10507 Aurora Ave N, 522-5100). Cyndy's is a time capsule of early '60s rec-room glory, all red Naugahyde booths and wood paneling. If you have the good fortune to sit at one of the wing-backed bar chairs, you'll see the action in the kitchen, plus you can stare at the fish tank behind the counter. Cyndy's menu (which features a Question of the Day; the answer comes from your server) is typewriter-typed on flimsy off-white paper. Its version of the classic ($10.95) is not to be missed: Always tender, always perfectly portioned, the CFS at Cyndy's is protected by a crisp, pankoesque breading and is served with the fluffiest biscuits and best greasy-spoon eggs one could imagine. It is completely delicious and always served with its own Question of Every Day: "Anything else, honey?"
Speaking of service, if Mae's Phinney Ridge Cafe (6412 Phinney Ave N, 782-1222) had shown me just a dollop of kindness, I would have enjoyed the crumbly, savory crispness of that establishment's chicken-fried steak ($10.95) much more. I was eating alone and felt rushed by the brusque server, and one thing you don't want is to cram a meal like that down your hole at top speed. Conversely, kudos to Julia's (1825 Queen Anne Ave N, 282-0680; 300 Broadway E, 680-1818; and 4401 Wallingford Ave N, 633-1175) for its version ($11.95)—available at breakfast only—and also to the U-District's venerable Blue Onion Bistro (5801 Roosevelt Way NE, 729-0579), whose praises are sung by many, including me. I'm sure that you, dear reader, have a favorite chicken-fried steak of your own. To this, I say: Bring it! I'm not planning on curbing my intake anytime soon. My heart can take the cholesterol. I'm from Texas.