Chicken-fried steak is, essentially, a cowboy meal: a tough piece of beef (often round steak), pounded thin and tenderized, coated in flour and fried in a pan with oil. When covered with a pepper-heavy white gravy, the fried steak is not the prettiest dish you’ll ever encounter. It can look like someone’s trying to frost a deflated football — and turn out to be just as chewy.
This was not a problem, however, at the Chicken-Fried Steak Showdown on Sunday at Black Jack, chef and restaurateur Jeff Black’s dark, moody bar above Pearl Dive Oyster Palace on 14th Street NW. The five competing chefs, including Black, put the proverbial lipstick on this pig of a country dish. The other makeup artists/chefs included Birch & Barley’s Kyle Bailey, The Source’s Scott Drewno, Bourbon Steak’s Adam Sobel and Victor Albisu, formerly of BLT Steak.
When judges David Hagedorn (The Process columnist for the Food section, too), Urban Daddy’s Jeff Dufour and I were finished tallying votes, the winner, in a split decision, was the man who hosted the event. Black was awarded his own gag prize: an old work shoe found in the Pearl Dive basement. The contest wasn’t rigged, I swear, although you could say Black had an advantage: He’s from Texas.
While Black’s version maintained the essential flavors of chicken-fried steak, his choice of beef was anything but traditional: He favored a center-cut rib-eye, thick and juicy and cooked just past medium-rare. It was the first chicken-fried steak I ever had with a pink center — or as Hagedorn quipped, at least the first one with a pink center “on purpose.”
Crispy, peppery and running with rich, red juices, Black’s chicken-fried steak was utterly delicious. If I hadn’t had to eat four more CFSs right after it, I would have devoured the entire thing. And asked for seconds.
Second place went to Albisu’s highly stylized version of chicken-fried steak (see the photo above). It was a pine nut-crusted Wagyu rib-eye with langoustine gravy, wood-grilled sweetbreads, ramps, chopped fava beans and a romesco sauce. It also included a fried quail egg as a nod to Albisu’s “all time favorite plate of food”: Cuban-style breaded steak with black beans and rice, plantains, yuca and two fried eggs.
“That little egg had to be there,” Albisu wrote me via e-mail this morning. “In fact that was the first ingredient I thought of.”
It was a heady dish, with more flavors than the buffet at Ponderosa, and I could have spent an afternoon trying different ingredient combinations. It also tasted nothing like a chicken-fried steak, which was my only strike against it.
Winners and losers aside, the competition was mostly a fundraiser for the juvenile diabetes wing at Children’s National Medical Center, an institution close to Jeff Black’s heart. Their 13-year-old son, Simon, has Type 1 diabetes, and Jeff and Barbara Black have spent many an hour dealing with the condition. As part of the showdown, Black presented a check for $200,000 to Children’s live on “Foodie and the Beast,” David and Nycci Nellis’s show on Federal News Radio.
The Blacks have hosted several fundraisers for the cause in the past two years, Jeff Black said. On Sunday, the couple raised $170,000 and covered the remainder of the check themselves, he added. “If I didn’t raise any, I was going to write a check for the whole amount,” Black said.
The money will go toward a kitchen at the hospital, where staff can help families better understand the types of foods to prepare for their diabetic children. “You can go into this kitchen. You can sit down. The nutritionist can sit there and talk to you, right across the [table] and say, ‘All right, let’s explain what’s going to have to happen. How you have to eat. How you should eat,’ ” explained Black.