Like Diogenes searching for an honest man, we are always on the lookout for the perfect chicken-fried steak. We’ve found some excellent ones (and too many mediocre ones). One of the finest is served at the Hill Country Cupboard in Johnson City, Texas. This big barn of a restaurant by the side of the highway claims to serve “The World’s Best Chicken Fried Steak,” backing up that claim with the humorous parenthesis, “(NEARLY 3 DOZEN SOLD).”
Texas Hill Country is where some of the best chicken-fried steaks are made and served (and most likely the place where the chicken-fried steak was invented decades ago by European immigrants who used American beef to make a cutlet similar to wiener schnitzel). Therefore, in this neighborhood, a claim of primacy is quite a boast.
The boast is justified. No need for a knife here; a fork will crack through a golden brown crust that is rich and well-spiced, an ideal complement to the ribbon of tender beef inside. Alongside the slab of crusty protein comes a great mound of skin-on mashed potatoes; and of course, there is thick white gravy to blanket the whole shebang. It is possible to get a “Mexican chicken-fried steak,” which is covered with spicy sauce and melting cheddar cheese: not a terrible idea, but neither is it an improvement on the excellent simplicity of the basic formula.
The Cupboard is a place where locals eat. Two airy dining rooms are crowned with circulating fans, illumination provided by fluorescent tubes shaded by what appears to be burlap feed-sack material. Service is no-nonsense; checks are put down on the table along with the meal.