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A table with a red checkered tablecloth holds a plate of chicken-fried steak with cream gravy, with two ramekins of mashed potatoes and squash. Above it, a hand holds a third ramekin with gravy that is still pouring out.
The best chicken-fried steak in Texas.

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No Chicken-Fried Steak Could Ever Live Up to the Ones I Eat at Jerry’s

It’s more than just meat. It’s the memories.

Courtney E. Smith is the editor of Eater Dallas. She's a journalist of 20 years who was born and raised in Texas, with bylines in Pitchfork, Wired, Esquire, Yahoo!, Salon, Refinery29, and more. When she's not writing about food, she co-hosts the podcast Songs My Ex Ruined.

The best chicken-fried steak in Texas can be found at Jerry’s Restaurant on Highway 190, just off Lake Livingston. Sure, I’m biased — it’s the chicken-fried steak I’ve been eating for my whole life at my family’s restaurant, which is named after my late grandfather. But I’ve had a lot of chicken-fried steak, and this version at Jerry’s, served under heaps of cream gravy, with a side of mashed potatoes and a salad, is the one I measure all other chicken-fried steaks against. Jerry’s version has a long history, rooted in family.

Jerry’s is a classic Texas cafe. Here, old men come to sit in the morning and drink cups of coffee while they read the newspaper. Members of the local Methodist church come en masse on Sunday after services for big plates of breakfast or the lunch special. Families sit at the big round tables in the middle of the room for dinner, and everybody is likely to bump into somebody they know. And if you’re from out of town, you’ll get greeted by my aunt, Jeanne Ann Smith Byrd, who’ll tell you the story of the cafe (She’ll probably want to find out what your deal is, too). Over the years, Jeanne Ann has put her stamp on the place. The walls went from plain white to wood-lined, she selects and rotates in seasonal decor monthly, and she still uses the red-and-white checkered tablecloths that her daddy liked.

A man’s hand holds up a burger that is pinned together with a toothpick and over stuffed with fried onions. Behind it is a sign that reads, “Jerry’s Restaurant.”
Chef Wayne Nobles holds up a famous Jerry’s burger.

My great-great-grandfather opened the general store bearing his name, A.S. Smith and Co., in the tiny sawmill town of Onalaska, Texas, in the 1930s; at the time, it was one of just a handful of non-mill-owned businesses. It was in a red-brick building we still own, down by the lake. The mercantile was downstairs, and the restaurant upstairs. Eventually, the two became different businesses after the roads moved because Lake Livingston was being built. Next to it, a general store and butcher shop of the same name sold hardware, animal feed, groceries, and gas.

On a red checkered tablecloth, a hand moves a piece of pie loaded with meringue onto a small plate. The full pie is behind it.
A heavenly piece of meringue pie, homemade on the premises.
On a black checkered tablecloth is a cherry pie with some braided layers on top.
A homemade cherry pie — always a great end to any meal.

Since its founding, Onalaska has been a majority-white town; at the time my family’s business was established, Jim Crow laws were still being enacted in Texas. Onalaska’s own history reflects that racial division. The mill maintained separate living quarters for Black and white employees. Baseball teams were segregated. My family members, who are white, employed several Black women in the butcher shop, at the store’s cash register, and later at the restaurant. Black women were largely relegated to caretaking and domestic roles during that period and a disproportionate number of people of color still fill these roles today. But these women had an unquantifiable impact on our family’s restaurant, creating and shaping the business and recipes we love today.

Our family didn’t just own these businesses — we practically lived in them. So when the kids spent the day in the store, Lucy Mae Theragood kept an eye on us while she went about her job, running the meat market and checking out customers. For years, Lucy Mae hand-sliced and tenderized the beef for the chicken-fried steak served at the restaurant. She was hired at the original store in the late ’60s when she was still in high school. Her mother worked in the restaurant, and her grandmother worked as a cook and maid at my great-grandfather Pop Smith’s house. When Lucy Mae retired in the late ’90s and the general store closed, the butchery was moved into the kitchen at Jerry’s. Then, the steaks were cut and tenderized by the chefs — and frequently my uncle and cousin — and coated in a flaky breading made with ingredients I can’t divulge because it’s a family secret.

A woman stands in a restaurant with paneled wood walls. Next to her is a cash register.
Jeanne Ann Smith Byrd is the owner of Jerry’s Restaurant in Onalaska, Texas.

My aunt, Jeanne Ann, the caretaker of the restaurant, grew up learning how to cut up steaks with her dad at the restaurant. “On weekends, Daddy would have a hindquarter and a big metal pan, and they would cut the chicken-fried steaks. We cut the steaks, too, and ground our own hamburger meat,” she recalls. The idea was to use as much of the cow as possible, she says, letting nothing go to waste. Those chicken-fried steaks have remained breathtakingly good — crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, with saltiness and a gaminess that play off the smooth pepper-filled cream gravy and soft mashed potatoes. Then, the accompanying salad was always made with iceberg lettuce, big slices of beefsteak tomato, and shredded cheddar cheese, because it was the kind of dinner salad my grandfather liked. These days, customers can get a romaine mix instead. And every plate comes with a basket of yeast rolls, made fresh twice daily — each big enough to make a meal on their own.

A basket of rolls sits on a red checkered tablecloth. A hand holds half of one, while the other hand squirts honey from a bear-shaped jar on it.
Don’t forget a drizzle of honey on those yeast rolls.

Jeanne Ann says the rolls, a fan favorite, were likely crafted by my great-grandmother Mama Smith and my mother Joy. Although my grandmother and Granny Wheeler, a white woman who worked as a cook in the original restaurant, were the first ones to make the rolls, it was Earline Travis, or “Mrs. Earline,” another Black woman who trained everyone how to make them once the restaurant moved. “She was the master of the yeast rolls,” my aunt says. Mrs. Earline worked there for decades and had one of the biggest personalities that Jerry’s had ever seen. She taught the whole kitchen the art of making these rolls over several decades, and it became the restaurant’s signature, best eaten with a big squirt of honey made fresh from Pop Smith’s beehives. That tradition lives on, with every basket coming stocked with a little bear full of honey.

To this day, many traditions remain, Mama Smith’s broccoli cornbread is still served on Sundays — the savory sweetness of it takes me back to childhood. It sparks vivid memories of sitting around one of the large, round tables with Mama Smith and all my cousins, around half a dozen kids between ages 3 and 12, eating lunch on the weekends: Mama Smith dumping half a cup of sugar into her iced tea, but never stirring it. My cousin Brett always spilling his tall red plastic glass of Coke, awfully big for little hands to manage. Jerry’s still uses glasses just like that.

My aunt says her favorite memory of the restaurant was the day it opened. “Daddy had a morning shift, and he let us know he didn’t hire anyone for the evening shift,” she tells me, followed by her and her son and my cousin, Johnny Byrd III, letting out a big laugh. Grandaddy didn’t do that on purpose, they say. He forgot. “He said, ‘We’re just going to be real quiet about it and have an opening that no one knows about.’ Well, all of Polk County came and there was no one but Mother and I to wait tables,” Jeanne Ann says. It turned into an all-hands-on-deck affair. My father, Jerry III, was the maitre d’ with a tie on, and he’d take it off to go be the dishwasher. Grandaddy and my uncle Bobby cooked. “I will never forget Bobby asking what goes on a seafood platter, and Daddy saying, ‘Hell, I don’t know. Put everything we’ve got on it,’” she says.

A white board with the daily list of desserts written out by hand, and there are well over a dozen. Behind it is a faux fireplace loaded with Fourth of July decorations and teddy bears.
The list of dessert options is long, so choose wisely.
One corner of a dining room in a restaurant shows a table with four elderly women eating lunch. The tables around them are empty. The room is heavily decorated with Fourth of July decor, two deer heads hang on the wall, and a sign with specials is in the corner.
In a corner, four ladies are lunching.

Nearly everyone in our family has worked and eaten at the restaurant countless times, spanning over six generations. My cousin Johnny started as a dishwasher in high school, around the same time I spent a couple of summers working as the hostess. Since then, he’s helped manage it from time to time, and now his kids Britney and Johnny IIII work there, too, washing dishes, hosting, and waiting tables. In all that time, it’s seen a lot of changes. It serves liquor and beer now (something that would make Mama Smith roll over in her grave). Lunch, which used to be $1 a plate in the ’60s, costs more these days, but the expansive list of daily lunch specials remains, and purple hull peas, and sometimes cream peas, still make the menu as a nod to Pop Smith’s farm, the land long gone under Lake Livingston now, where he raised purple hull peas that went into the original store and restaurant.

Jerry’s has come a long way in the 50-plus years that it’s been open. The four-burner stove that my grandmother cooked on is now a multiple-griddle operation that employs four or five cooks at any given time, and what was solely a small family business has a full kitchen staff. The restaurant has returned to serving freshly made desserts, with Jeanne Ann still developing different takes on the lemon icebox pie her dad loved (chocolate and blueberry are proven hits). Folks often pull in expecting a burger and are blown away by an array of dishes that are well-loved in East Texas: boudin balls, fried green tomatoes, frog legs, stuffed crab, and the newest addition, a chicken-fried rib-eye. We don’t know who will inherit it and keep Jerry’s going after Jeanne Ann, the last of the Smiths to work there full time, retires — for now, at least. But someone’s going to have to keep Friday and Saturday night all-you-can-eat catfish suppers going. We’ll figure it out — we always have.