Chicken Fried Steak has always been a source of fascination for me, for some inexplicable reason. A staple at truck stops and diners, I have had a far-away curiosity about it. In the last few years though, that curiosity has been shared by enough people that chefs at gourmet restaurants have decided to try their hands at it. Chicken Fried Steak, also known as Country Fried Steak, has been turning up in finer restaurants not on the regular menu, but as a quirky special, usually at lunch.
Our daughter, keeper of our Instagram page @theneworleansmenu, will often mention things that she sees perusing the social media platform. Well aware of my desire for the elusive Chicken Fried Steak of my dreams, she casually mentioned a Wednesday Blue Plate Special at Hambone in Mandeville.
I filed it in the back of my brain, and weeks went by before Tom and I found ourselves in Mandeville one Wednesday around lunchtime. Chicken Fried Steak was suddenly ejected from the deep recesses of my memory, and we headed to Hambone for hopefully the Chicken Fried Steak I knew must be out there. One I would savor.
We arrived at Hambone to a cacophony of sound coming from the tiny kitchen. Brutal sound. Whack! Whack Whack-Whack!!!....Whack! I figured it must be the Chicken Fried Steak, but goodness, this was serious work! Unrelenting sound. And what must be a pretty good workout for Chef Luke Hidalgo, a seriously talented former A-lister from the south shore, now happily plying his trade at this quirky place which allows him more family time.
I vaguely remember having a Chicken Fried Steak many years ago, which was a hamburger fried like chicken. But a true Chicken Fried Steak is a seriously-pounded round steak, a cheap cut of beef that needs relentless tenderizing. It is then dredged through egg wash and salt-and-peppered flour and deep-fried. What could be wrong with this?
At Hambone the meat is served alongside something they call JoJo potatoes, a pile of fried cubes with onions and sour cream. In short, a plate of fried stuff drenched in white Country gravy. (Just reading over that makes me wonder about my obsession with this dish, but there it is.)
The anticipation built with each loud whack of the mallet. “This will be tender and delicious, not to mention crispy, but also creamy,” I gushed to myself with titillation. I was finally going to try Chicken Fried Steak, and I didn’t have to go to a truck stop to get it!
Soon it was in front of me, pummelled so thin it spread over the entire plate. I could scarcely tell where the steak ended, the potatoes began, and the gravy nestled.
I cut a piece and realized how connected the tissue was, still, after all that pounding. Then I took a bite and it crunched in my mouth. The steak, potatoes and gravy made for intense flavor. Luke Hidalgo is into pickling, and that is putting it mildly. Jars of his pickled vegetables line the walls, and a medley of vegetables turns up everywhere, from his sensational potato salad with chopped pickled okra to this white gravy with Jardiniere vegetables. The pickled vegetables turned this old-fashioned lowly dish into something hip. The contrast of textures was also interesting - crunchy steak and creamy gravy.
It broke my heart to realize that after only three or four bites of this I was done. If Luke Hidalgo cannot make Chicken Fried Steak sensational, then I have to remember my long-held theory: some things should not be gourmetized. Add Chicken Fried Steak to that list. But I suspect that Luke Hidalgo’s version of Chicken Fried Steak might be the pinnacle . The pinnacle of a dish I just don’t need to eat again, even after wondering about it my whole life.
Tom fared a little better that day with a beautiful pile of fried plantains floating over catfish mousse. It was Hambone, so there were radishes and some pickled things scattered about this. Tom has a catfish obsession at least equal to my Chicken Fried Steak one, so it is a happy coincidence that catfish is becoming omnipresent on menus. But this was a unique approach. It was quite rich and definitely something to share.
The best thing on the table was another special, and an odd one that I ordered on a lark, and just because I heard mentioned one of my favorite food words: jambalaya. A Jambalaya hand pie. Too many carbs in one place was my first thought, but I was very glad to get it. The crust was impossibly flaky, and the insides burst with the Cajun flavor of that signature dish, made even more decadent with melted cheese inside.
This delectable thing was accompanied by an avocado crema that absolutely thrilled me. There is no such thing as a bad avocado crema, but this! Covered with fresh dill this was something that made you want to lick the dish, which was actually a small mason jar, making the presentation even more appealing.
The food at Hambone is as quirky as the place. This guy has an original interpretation to everything that comes out of the kitchen. I always leave amused by the creativity, mildly annoyed that he has again yanked me from my comfort zone, and impressed by the deliciousness of it all.