This is the “coulda shoulda woulda” chicken-fried steak (CFS) challenge. Two old-school Houston diners square-off, with opposite results. One contestant just missed being the city’s top CFS experience, while the other narrowly avoided the ignominious F grade. Read on to find who could have been the best and who would have been the worst.
Kelley’s is a family-owned chain of six diners located throughout the greater Houston area. Started in 1983, Kelley’s is the prototype of the old-school Texas diner, albeit on a slightly larger scale. The flagship location on Park Place at the Gulf Freeway features a cavernous dining room that is mostly filled throughout the day. An army of waiters scurry between the dining tables and the long, slender kitchen along one wall. Clientele reflects the diverse, mostly blue-collar population of this East End neighborhood near Pasadena, South Houston and Hobby Airport.
You seat yourself. A waiter approaches with a hefty, spiral-bound, plastic-paged menu and takes your drink order. Not surprisingly, breakfast is a big draw here. Omelettes every way, grand slams, meat lovers and country boy breakfasts abound. Chili is a big feature on the menu and can be ladled onto just about anything. The choice of side orders is one of the most extensive I’ve seen in Houston: spinach, lima beans, buttered carrots, green beans, candied yams, etc.
The CFS comes in two sizes: “super Texas size” for $9.99 and “regular” for $7.99 and includes french fries or mashed potatoes, salad and texas toast (we substituted rolls and cornbread for the toast). Important tip: the menu lists “country cream gravy” to go with the CFS. Actually there are three gravies to choose from: cream, pepper and brown. Get the “pepper” gravy. The plain cream gravy is flavorless and brown gravy should never be allowed anywhere near a chicken-fried steak.
Meat: Mostly tender, with some chewy pieces. Overall, great flavor. Some may find the meat too thin, but I think the ratio of meat to crust is excellent.
Crust: This is where Kelley’s CFS really shines. The crust is fried to golden brown perfection, with patches of light and dark spread throughout and virtually no trace of extra oil on the plate. The crust practically shatters when poked, revealing good adherence between the meat and the crust. Flavor is excellent.
Gravy: The “pepper” gravy is the only way to go. And it is very good. Not too salty with a good peppery kick. There’s an excellent richness with a perfectly creamy texture.
Value: Excellent. The “super Texas size” is one of the largest chicken-fried steaks you’ll find in Houston and a great value for less than ten bucks.
Extras: The fries were standard issue; well-prepared and tasty but nothing special. Regrettably, the bread was a disappointment. The cornbread was dry and crumbly and the pull-apart rolls were uninspired.
Overall grade: A-. Considered by itself, the actual chicken-fried steak at Kelley’s is outstanding; I’d say one of the top three in Houston. Unfortunately, some of the extras like fries and cornbread prevent Kelley’s from being what could be the best overall CFS experience in Houston.
The Tel-Wink sits on a gritty stretch of Telephone Road just inside the East Loop (come to think of it, is there a stretch of Telephone Road that’s not gritty?). It’s a neighborhood of auto parts stores and warehouses and those curious establishments with blacked-out windows, steel-barred doors and neon signs beckoning visitors to imbibe in “cocktails” and “setups.” It’s perhaps not the best place to go after dark, which may explain why the Tel-Wink is open only for breakfast and lunch.
This is another old-school diner with an open kitchen, lumpy vinyl booths and a working-class clientele. Tel-Wink is mostly about breakfast, served all day. I still get reports that this place has good CFS and it comes with breakfast or as a separate menu item. Amazingly, most of the menu prices orbit in the $6-$7 range, easily one of the most affordable, non-fast-food eating establishments in Houston.
The chicken-fried steak here is just another line-item in the non-breakfast menu; it comes with mashed potatoes or fries, one side and rolls. All for the unlikely sum of $5.95! That was the first sign of trouble. I asked the waitress how big it was and if it was made from scratch. “No,” she replied, “I think it’s frozen and it’s small, but it’s good!” I ordered anyway.
Meat: I don’t know if you can call this meat. “Meat-like substance” may be more accurate. It had a dense, rubbery texture and unidentifiable flavor.
Crust: Again, unidentifiable material. Completely and unnaturally fused to the meat-like substance. It had no real flavor.
Gravy: A nice richness but overly salted. The fatty material of the CFS meat-like substance combined with the richness of the gravy was quite heavy.
Value: I’m guessing this is a “prefabricated” CFS that is probably the least expensive option from their supplier. Yes, it is dirt cheap at $5.95 but bad food at any price is a poor value.
Extras: The fries were average. The rolls were pillowy and tasteless. My side of green beans tasted like they were canned.
Overall grade: D-. The only thing that would keep the CFS experience at Tel-Wink from being an “F” is the friendly service and enjoyable, lively diner atmosphere. And, yes, I said lively, as in the place is always packed. Clearly Tel-Wink is doing something right; the prices are a big draw and I assume the breakfast is popular. Unfortunately the prefabricated feel and artificially-flavored taste of the CFS is a big disappointment.
Kelley’s takes this one going away. All things considered, if Kelley’s could produce a basket of buttery, steaming, yeasty rolls and moist, sweet cornbread, it could be the best CFS experience in Houston.
Previous CFS challenge:
Posted 16 May 2011 on the www.29-95.com website.