Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Grace & Gravy

Posted on Wed, Oct 14, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2009-10-14

The chicken-fried steak at Casbeers, its surface pocked and pitted like hardscrabble soil, looms large over half of a simple, white plate. A mound of equally earthen fries covers any remaining space. A bowl of pepper-flecked cream gravy sits saucered on the side, its pale color offering little in the way of contrast. It’s all just as it should be. 

Oh, there are options: You could substitute mashed potatoes for fries, especially if making the most of the gravy was a goal. But, please, not the vegetable of the day. Certainly not a side salad. Onion rings are wrong in scale. But pinto beans are appropriately Texas and can be admitted into the circle. As pintos go, and they are often a bore, these are larded with enough bacon and onion to have real flavor; they only needed a little salt. 

The fries, floppier than I like, needed salt, too, but otherwise passed muster. Cream gravy can make or break a CFS, and ideally it should be made in the same pan as the steak was fried in. As you have an option at Casbeers of a heretical brown gravy (it was brought to me first by mistake), it’s hard to imagine that this is how the kitchen makes either of them, but regardless, the white seemed adequately genuine, even tasting a little (maybe by dint of fantasy) of evaporated milk, the liquid some cooks believe is better than fresh. In any event, the gravy and the steak, pounded to within a quarter inch of its life, are made for each other.  

It seems appropriate to eat chicken-fried steak in the basement of a deconsecrated church, its walls lined with photos of entertainers and a stage for live music set up in one corner.

Enchiladas are Casbeers’s “signature dish,” and as such have achieved a kind of sacred quality of their own, quite apart from setting. “Lucille’s famous original recipe” chile adorns the cheddar-stuffed enchiladas under the usual mantle of melted cheese and chopped raw onions, and assuming even a barely detectable residue of the structure’s past purpose, I feel obliged to tell the truth: I wouldn’t order the chili on its own. It’s reasonably meaty, but there’s too much chili-powder taste. Yet it’s far superior to the chili gravy that profanes many enchiladas — the cheese is real, and if the tinted tortillas are a tad tough, well, that’s Tex-Mex for you. As a side, the “fresh cut and hand battered!” onion rings were more disappointing. The six pieces cost $3.95, and “fresh” didn’t immediately leap to mind. 

But maybe everything tastes better with a side of live music. The monthly calendar is full of Tejano and more, many acts without cover. However, if you want to chase your beer or bourbon with a slice of chocolate cake — and you should; it’s the true, unaffected thing — make sure it’s a basement performance. Unlike certain cinemas, food isn’t served in the sanctuary. — Ron Bechtol

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