The ultimate test of a diner's worth isn't the waffles or the coffee, or even the French toast. It's the country-fried steak. Few people in Orange County know how this dish should properly taste, mainly because few of y'all have ever hit small-town Oklahoma or Texas, where country-fried (or chicken-fried, if you like that name better) steak is gospel. It should sing of the region: hearty and unassuming and with a flavor palate limited to crunch, beef and peppered gravy. Yet in this seeming simplicity is—just as with the people who love it best—more complexity and attention to detail than elites ever give it credit for. If a diner nails it, that means it's paying attention to not just this, but everything.
Unsurprisingly, Orange County's food scene—which increasingly thinks meals should taste like Instagram—consistently fails in trying to make country-fried steak, instead churning out gravy that tastes like sand-spiked water and creating a floppy crust on the meat with the consistency of a wet napkin. All year, I've tried to find another country-fried steak on par with the one at Paul's Coffee Shop in Fountain Valley, the only good one in OC. I went to at least a dozen diners, from higher-end to greasy spoon—all failures to the point that I'd take three bites and ask for the bill. But then I came across Friends Cafe in Tustin, which just opened this summer. It's open all day, with beers on tap and ESPN on flat-screens in its too-spacious dining room. There is care in the burgers and omelets, surprises with specials (potato pancakes for the win), and pillows of joy with the French Toast Royal, which uses Texas toast, blueberries and cream cheese to brighten your life.
And the country-fried steak? A gravy like silk, not too cloying or fatty. A vast, juicy steak. A crust with the crackle of tempura. A Panhandle's worth of hash browns, upon which a tower of wheat bread stood as if it were the massive, 19-story cross east of Amarillo on Interstate 40. "Wow, I should order that next time!" a guy said as he and his gal were leaving. You should, gentle gabacho—you should.
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Friends Cafe, 17391 17th St., Tustin, (714) 617-4661; www.friendscafetustin.com.