The perils and glories of Road Food
In my young adult novel, Calling Out Your Name, my 16-year old protagonist, Woody Elmont, is on the road from Georgia to California in search of his missing younger brother. At one point, Woody is on a bus pulling into Albuquerque for a lunch stop. I wrote this based partly on my experience at a similar chain restaurant:
The driver came on radio and said this was Albuquerque and we’d be having a stop here for lunch. Soon enough we were down into the city where we left the highway and drove a few blocks before pulling into the parking lot of a Mueller’s.
Now if you’ve ever been on the highway more than five miles from home you’ve seen Mueller’s restaurants with their big red sign on top that has the happy kid’s face. The kid looks so stupid with his big ugly tongue sticking out and licking his chops as if he actually choked the food down and enjoyed it. If you’ve eaten at Mueller’s and actually liked it, then I have to apologize, but I’ve eaten there twice and it was two times too many… My main problem with Mueller’s is that the food doesn’t taste. You think you’re getting the world’s best looking mac and cheese (which I ordered once) and you have a bite and there’s no flavor of any kind. You have more bites searching for flavor, and it never comes…
Mueller’s, like any other chain restaurant, has the same lousy food no matter where you are, Georgia or Michigan or New Mexico. They don’t discriminate – they make sure all their crap gets spread equally all over the country.
This is one of the few times my young hero shows irritation bordering on rage – he’s otherwise a fairly gentle and mellow soul – but in this passage he’s echoing my own deep-seeded distaste for a restaurant chain that’s spread all over the south and midwest. When my wife and I are on the road and we approach a Shoney’s (there, I named it), we make the sign of the cross and move on to someplace else serving food that doesn’t taste like cellophane.
The restaurant may have improved in the last couple of years – I don’t know – but they’d need to create a new spice called “Flavor” to make it happen.
I mention Shoney’s because it has a truck-stoppy kind of ambience and food setup, with a generously varied, all-you-can-eat buffet that looks far, far better than it really is. But real truck-stop food is first-class stuff – always the best lunch stop you can make on a long-haul trip.
Truck stops. Why is the food so good?
TravelCenters of America – The biggest truck-stop chain in America – 249 locations. Mostly fast-food restaurants inside.
Why is the food so good? Because truckers eat here. And truckers (for the most part) know their grits from gravy.
For fine food on the road, I’m referring to smaller, independent, non-franchise truck stops, the ones that belong to the North American Truck Stop Network (NATSN). The others, the larger chains like TravelCenters of America (above) and Pilot FlyingJ, almost always feature chain and fast-food restaurants, so if it says “Popeye’s,” that’s what you’ll get for dinner. But tucked off the interstates here and there are dozens of mom-and-pop truck stops with a single restaurant that serves nearly everything, either at the table or cafeteria-style. They offer truckers-only seating in comfy booths, and serve up the best home-cooking you’ll find on the road. Invariably, they’ll include a dish I discovered many years ago in the South: chicken fried steak. With biscuits and white pan gravy, mashies, and veggies. Oh man.
Chicken fried steak – I can’t even…
Just look at this for awhile… Chicken Fried Steak with buttermilk biscuits (my pic)
This dish is especially popular in the South, Midwest, and West, and it’s too bad we don’t see more of it here in Maine, because I’d order it frequently.
The name “Chicken fried steak” confuses some people who’ve never had it… Oh, it’s some kind of fried chicken. Well no, it’s not, it’s cube steak (beef), breaded and dipped in egg and milk and then breaded again and fried – just like some fried chicken. The gravy and biscuits come later, and the whole shebang is wordlessly good. Let’s start with —
Cube steak is so named because it’s a cut of steak with cube-shaped holes punched through it. It starts with a slice of beef round (either top or bottom round – the bottom being preferably for flavor and tenderness), up to about 1/2″ thick, that goes through a a “meat cuber.” My own opinion is, this is the best thing that could ever happen to any “round” cut of beef — which is not a cut I’d recommend for anything else, including hamburger.
Here’s an electric meat cuber. Others are manual, and mounted on a countertop.
The result is meat that’s been “cubed,” and tenderized in the process. Its many perforations make it ideal for chicken fried steak, what with all the holes trapping the flavors of the searing meat and the bread crumb mixture it’s been dredged in. Let’s move onward to the recipe —
Fried goodness beyond language…
Yes it is.
You’ll need for the steaks (for 2 people):
- 2 cube steaks (supermarkets usually sell 2 to a package)
- oil (vegetable or canola)
- about 1/2 cup milk
- 1 egg
- a dab (Tbsp) of butter
- about 1 cup bread crumbs
- spices: pepper, cayenne pepper, seasoned salt like Old Bay, paprika (optional)
- large skillet (we used a #10 iron pan)
For the gravy:
- about 3 Tbsp. flour
- 1 1/2 to 2 cups milk
- extra butter, if needed
- seasoned salt and pepper
Now do these things:
- pound the steaks on a cutting board, using a wooden pounder or pestle. Don’t be shy – pound them vigorously on both sides. They will spread, doubling in size, and be thinner when fully pounded.
- In a shallow bowl, mix the egg and milk together thoroughly with a fork.
- Put the bread crumbs in another bowl and stir in the spices.
- Dredge the steaks in the bread crumbs till fully coated. Now soak in the egg-milk mixture, and return to the bread crumb dredge and coat thoroughly. Set aside on a plate. (This is the dry-wet-dry dredging approach – as good as it gets!)
- Get the oil quite hot in the fry pan. When it seems pretty hot, add the pat of butter.
- Fry over medium-high heat for about 3 minutes a side. Then set aside on a plate with paper towels. To keep warm, you can put these in a warm (275 or so) oven.
- Notice that you can use flour instead of bread crumbs for the dredge, but purists would call this county fried steak, not chicken fried steak.
For the gravy —
- Make the roux. There should be a tablespoon or two of dripping/oil left in the pan. Sprinkle in the 3 Tbsp. flour, and whisk thoroughly. If you need more grease, add some butter – the mixture shouldn’t look oily/shiny, nor clumpy and pasty, but somewhere in between. Stir this mixture for 3 minutes or so until smooth.
- Add the milk and spices, and whisk well over medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes, adding more milk if needed until you have a gravy that’s not too thick.
Serve up the steaks on warm plates, spoon out the gravy, and you’re done! Serve with biscuits, mashies and a veg.
Try it and let me know!