By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2006 Gourmet Magazine
The worst thing you can eat on old Route 66 between the Oklahoma towns of Miami and Texola is chicken fried steak. From the lower Midwest through Texas and beyond, it is served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in truck stops and cafés. The typical chicken fried steak is a gristly tile of beef encased in batter sodden with frying oil and smothered with gluey white gravy.
The best thing you can eat on Route 66? That would be chicken fried steak—if you know where to go. On a recent trip south of the Osage frontier in northeastern Oklahoma from Quapaw to the Canadian River, in the middle of the state, we found two vintage cafés where the cow-country cook’s way to tame ornery beef has become the basis of a diner delicacy. The towns where these places are located, Vinita and Stroud, are not part of the widely known romance of the Mother Road—in fact, nothing between Joplin, Missouri, and Oklahoma City is mentioned in Bobby Troup’s road-tripper’s anthem—but to get your edible kicks on Route 66, there aren’t two places finer than Clanton’s Cafe, in Vinita, and the Rock Cafe, in Stroud.
When “Sweet Tater” Clanton opened his restaurant, in 1927, most of the new road was not yet paved, and it is said that to attract customers Clanton used to walk out the front door and bang a pot and pan together when he spied someone about to drive past. Today, Clanton’s great-granddaughter Melissa and her husband, Dennis Patrick, have a crowd of breakfasters so predictable that those who frequent the big “public table” toward the back of the dining room never look at menus or place an order. When Lowell walks in the door, a waitress calls “Lowell!” back to the kitchen and the cook starts preparing what Lowell eats. Same for Jim D., Freddy, and Glen.
Clanton’s chicken fried steak starts with what the Patricks call an “extra-tenderized” cube steak they get from Tulsa. (Chicken fried steak lore says that the proper method for tenderizing tough beef is to use a Coke bottle to whack the fight out of it.) The beef patty is dipped in a mixture of egg and buttermilk, then dredged once in seasoned flour. “If you double-dip,” Patrick says, “you will get a steak that looks bigger. But it takes you farther away from the flavor of the beef.” The steak is cooked on a flat griddle until the blood begins to rise up through the flour, then flipped and finished. The edge of a fork will sever it effortlessly into bite-sized triangle with beefy, crisp-crusted luxury that is ineffably amplified when it’s pushed through mashed potatoes and peppery cream gravy.
Sightseers who get off the interstate to explore the original roadbed often find their way to Clanton’s, but the Patricks relish the fact that their place is a town café with standards set by local tastes. Dennis Patrick says: “If our gravy is a little off, if the biscuits aren’t as fluffy as usual, if there’s too much salt in the dressing, they let us know.” The dressing is a Thanksgiving-flavored companion for moist hunks of white and dark meat pulled off a freshly roasted chicken, a Clanton specialty for decades. Patrick points out that one of the most popular dishes on the menu is calf fries (also known as prairie oysters, among other things)—not exactly tourist fare—and that the pie crust recipe hasn’t changed for decades. There is no secret to making the fragile, flaky foundation for Clanton’s chocolate cream, coconut cream, and banana cream pies, but Melissa did share the ingredient that makes all the difference: ice water—icy, icy ice water.
Constructed from hunks of red sandstone excavated to make way for Route 66, the Rock Cafe opened in Stroud in 1939, when the last stretches of the Oklahoma section of the highway were paved. While most of the historic road from Chicago to Los Angeles has vanished, as have the colorful tourist courts, service stations, and short-order diners that once made it a bonanza of highway kitsch, this solid little restaurant is a vision out of the past. A highway bus stop and truckers’ destination before the interstate highway system was established, it is a cozy spot with a curious configuration of booths that look like automobile bench seats and a couple of counters at which customers carry on conversations among themselves and, through a large pass-through window, with the kitchen. Every inch of the cedar-paneled walls is packed with knick knacks, souvenirs, and silly kitchen homilies. With the menu, customers are given a guest book to sign. “This is the only place between here and there,” one customer contributed. “We are from Oslo,” wrote Greta and Stein. Someone else drew a map of Corsica with a star marking home.
Just as the Rock Cafe’s heavy stone walls have endured, so has its original grill, which cook and proprietor Dawn Welch describes as having been “seasoned for eternity.” She finds it funny that with a menu as broad as hers—it includes dishes such as fried crawfish, homemade spaetzle topped with Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheese, sausage and vegetable burritos, and apple streusel crêpes—it’s hamburgers cooked on that grill that earn kudos in travelers’ blogs. Oklahoma has the best and most interesting hamburgers in America, and there is no question that the one at Rock Cafe is among the most delicious—a thick, juicy patty with a rugged crunch. But the chicken fried steak is even better.
Here, too, Welch credits the grill, not only for the shattering-crisp crust that hugs her chicken fried steak, but also for the dripping moistness of the thick ribbon of beef inside. “The moment you put something in a deep-fryer [the typical way to make a bad chicken fried steak], you can see the juice start coming out of it,” she says, adding that her chicken fried steak made with beef, delicious though it may be, isn’t all that popular anymore. She and her customers have found something better. Welch used to be married to a man from Switzerland whose mother made such good pork jägerschnitzel that when Welch bought the Rock Cafe 13 years ago, she put it on the menu. “Locals love it,” she says. “They like it so much that a while back some of them started asking me if I would make their chicken fried steak from the jägerschnitzel pork.” The chicken fried pork steak now outsells the beef version ten to one. Although it sounds similar to the tenderloins popular in the heart of the Midwest, this is thicker and spicier and fathomlessly juicy, sporting a complex bouquet of flavor from its tenure on the venerable grill.
Welch tells us she has nightmares about losing the grill. When we stop in for breakfast, she has just the night before dreamed that it had cracked beyond repair. Running a spatula across the dark, timeworn surface to clear away crumbs, she worries aloud if a couple more decades of scraping might eventually wear it out. She tells of the day a few years ago when a woman from New York City came to visit and asked if she could watch Welch make chicken fried steaks. The woman observed, then offered to buy the grill so she could bring it back east with her. The offer was generous, big enough to buy a modern replacement, but Welch refused what she considered a Faustian bargain. The soul of the Rock Cafe was not for sale.