The Chicken-Fried Steak of My Dreams at Tom's Burgers and Grill in Arlington
Weirdly, there's nothing about Tom's Burgers & Grill anywhere on the Dallas Observer's Web site. Perhaps that's because Tom's and its charming, chrome-covered diner are in Arlington -- a bit far outside the normal expanse of coverage for our sister paper -- but considering that we routinely cover spots from Galveston to The Woodlands, I'm formally urging my counterparts in Dallas to take Tom Landry out to Arlington and try Tom's Burgers & Grill for themselves.
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt The Texas Starch Platter, also known as chicken-fried steak with all the fixins, also known as the meal I want to eat before I die.
Why? Because chicken fried steak covered in ruffled potato chips, that's why. And more besides that.
I didn't mean to end up at Tom's Burgers & Grill on Saturday afternoon, but a morning of running errands for family in the Metroplex meant that I found myself in unfamiliar territory near Six Flags just as lunchtime was rolling around. I have one of those incredibly greedy, pushy stomachs -- I call it Scumbag Stomach -- that gets hungry and demands to be fed immediately on pain of death...but then calms back down and is full after only half a plate of food. So I wasn't going to make it back to Dallas or Fort Worth proper without getting something in my belly within the next half hour.
I turned to my trusty Urbanspoon app to see what was nearby and saw that Tom's Burgers & Grill, a few short miles down the road, specialized in chicken fried steak. I mentioned this and my boyfriend's eyes lit up. When we pulled up to Tom's a few minutes later, we were already in love with the place: Its chrome-outfitted exterior framed windows decorated with holiday scenes that made it feel like Christmas could actually be around the corner, despite the 82 degree temperature that afternoon.
Inside, it's clear that Tom's was built from an old Denny's, with the low-slung diner counter and stools still intact. And judging by the occupants of the other booths around us, some of the patrons themselves were left over from the old Denny's too. But the food, it turned out, was anything but chain-quality stuff.
I especially appreciated that a diner near Cowboys Stadium had the Texans game on that afternoon.
Because I knew that I couldn't eat an entire platter of chicken fried steak, my boyfriend and I decided to split an order. It turned out to be a good idea, because what came out to the table was far more than I could have ever eaten: a huge piece of steak, beaten flat and covered with a batter of crunchy ruffled potato chips and scallions; a side of mashed red potatoes that were at least one-third butter; corn on the cob; two slices of Texas toast (making this a truly old-school, reliable all-carb platter); and a Caesar salad in a serving bowl, the size that typically holds something along the lines of an Olive Garden never-ending salad. It was not a salad for the delicate flower type of eater.
In addition -- because we're both macaroni and cheese fanatics -- my boyfriend had ordered a bowl of the cheesy stuff. Our cheerful waitress had asked us: "Do you want to add any ham or bacon to that?" It wasn't an option on the menu, but her smile and raised eyebrow indicated we'd be foolish not to.
Bacon it was, and the bacon that came out mixed into the creamy bowl of pasta was clearly fresh-cooked and thick-cut. No microwaved funny business here. The ultra-smooth cheese sauce on the macaroni tasted (like the Caesar salad dressing) homemade, and was the polar opposite of the sadly dessicated and dried-out mac 'n' cheese we had at Common Table the night before.
And in true Texas fashion, the gravy for our potato-chip-crusted chicken fried steak came on the side. We couldn't have been happier. "Why isn't this a thing?" my boyfriend asked between mouthfuls of tender steak and crispy batter. "Why don't more steaks have potato chips on the outside?"
Probably because none of those places would be able to make that crunchy batter adhere to the chicken fried steak quite the way Tom's is able to. It was an admirable thing, made all the more impressive by the fact that Tom's didn't seem to use salted potato chips in the batter. If they had been, the chicken fried steak would have been a salt bomb. As it was, the chips provided the perfect textural contrast to the pounded steak without overloading the dish with sodium.
At the end of the meal, I was surprised to find that although Scumbag Stomach had settled down a bit, I was still hungry for dessert. I blame the subconscious knowledge (gleaned from perusing the menu earlier) that Tom's offered milkshakes and malts. We ordered a chocolate malt to-go and waited for our check.
But before we could even leave Tom's, I'd already sucked that down too. It tasted like pure childhood, the slightly nutty, caramelized salt flavor of malt toning down the bright sweetness of chocolate. Aside from the sensory pleasure of drinking the cold malt on an unseasonably hot day, however, it reminded me that there's always a gem waiting out there in even the rockiest of areas.
Arlington is typically derided for being a barren wasteland of chain restaurants, but Tom's Burgers & Grill proves that isn't so. Instead, the chicken fried steak there is something I'd gladly make the drive for -- either from Dallas or Fort Worth -- and will think of fondly back home in Houston, where a good chicken fried steak (potato chip batter or no) is often far too hard to find.
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