How do you tell the quality of a diner? By its chicken fried steak, of course.
Maybe it was just the mid 80’s, when everything was better, but the finest I ever tasted was at Boz Scaggs‘ Blue Light Cafe on Union Street in San Francisco. I’ve been chasing that high for three decades. (The Blue Light today, minimized and lost to new management, serves greasy, monotonous bar food paired with Jello shots.)
With the Martini Wagon in tow, the award for Second Best Chicken Fried Steak went to a diner outside Grand Coulee Dam. Actual steak, with a bone, real and delicious. The coating, crispycrunchy. The gravy, oh god, the gravy: not too salty, and lumpy with pork sausage. “Laah!” sang the angels as I scraped my plate and a heavenly light streamed through the humble, lace-trimmed windows. The home fries kicked ass as well.
I returned hungry to Grand Coulee years later, this time with the Airstream, and towed it the length and breadth of the teeny town, searching in vain for that magical restaurant, now disappeared. (Did it ever exist?)
How many chicken fried steaks have I eaten on the road, Airstreaming from diner to diner? Dozens. Scores. Hundreds? (Like the rings on a tree, you could probably measure this by my blood pressure readings or fat cells in my butt.)
You can say the same thing about sex, pizza, and democracy as you can about chicken fried steak: when it’s good, it’s great, and when it’s bad…it’s still pretty good. A few raise the bar. Zims Brau Haus in the Columbia Gorge really soaks up that hangover. Donna’s Diner in Moorcroft Wyoming borders on excellent, but the gravy’s uninspired. Sometimes you get chicken fried chicken, like at the beloved old Chicken Pie Shop, once an icon on the corner in Hillcrest, San Diego.
Gotta go, this is making me hungry. I’m currently mapping my summer trip across the country, this time via I70 East and I40 West. There HAS to be some mind blowing chicken fried manna on Route 66…any suggestions?