The first time I ate at Mary’s Cafe in Strawn was pure happenstance. It was the mid-1990s, and I was working in Strawn. I stopped in for lunch because there was no other place to eat. It was the most fortuitous lack of options I’ve ever had. I sat down at a table, sampled some good homemade chips and salsa, and then got my culinary bell rung by the best chicken-fried steak I ever encountered on the end of a fork. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Through the course of the intervening two decades, I visited Mary’s every time I was in the area and I read mentions of it in state and local magazines and newspapers. I’ve seen it referred to as the “Mona Lisa” of comfort food, and I’ve repeatedly heard it dubbed “the best chicken-fried steak in Texas.”
Lots of kitchens claim and even advertise that they have the best chicken-fried steak or a world-famous chicken-fried steak. Mary’s does neither. Mary’s leaves the praise to legions of extremely satisfied chicken-fried fans from all over the Southwest and beyond, whose mouths water at the mention of the place.
Mary Tretter bought the original eatery, known as The Polka Dot, in 1986 and hung a shingle over the door before she even knew what her specialties would be. And back then, by her own admission, she couldn’t even manage to create a decent cream gravy.
“I started making it, and I don’t know how many times it took me to get it down,” she says. “But I got it down, and then I got it down a little better.”
Ron Howell, Alvarado resident and longtime chicken-fried steak connoisseur, praises Mary’s effort. “The cream gravy is excellent,” he attests. “The meat is tender, and the batter is light instead of heavy. The overall combination makes it perfect.”
Howell, a member of United Cooperative Services who makes the trip to Mary’s a half-dozen times a year when he’s on the way to West Texas to hunt or visit relatives, is no greenhorn on the subject. “I’ve had chicken-fried steak all over Texas,” he says. “Nothing comes close.”
Chicken-fried steak at Mary’s comes in small (think generous oblong pancake), medium and large portions with ample cups of syrup—I mean cream gravy—on the side. The gravy is constituted from the drippings left over after cooking the hand-pounded, hand-floured, griddle-cooked steaks, which are unfailingly tender and moist. The end result is a delicious phenomenon that makes you wonder what went wrong with all the other “famous” chicken-fried steak offerings around the state.
Folks who have had the dish at Mary’s will tell you that it immediately becomes the chicken-fried steak by which they measure all others.
The 300-seat cafe also serves hamburgers, Tex-Mex and other satisfying fare like fried green tomatoes, sweet potato wedges, fried chicken livers and calf fries. And you can order a beer, either foreign or domestic. But the chicken-fried steak is Mary’s signature dish. Even if chicken-fried steak as you know it doesn’t blow your hair back, you might sample it at Mary’s and have second thoughts. Or change your mind completely.
And if you think I’m exaggerating, think again.
Sitting a few miles north of Interstate 20 on State Highway 16, Strawn has a population of almost 700 people. At lunch or dinner any day of the week, Mary’s will serve hundreds of diners—but rest assured that half the population of Strawn doesn’t congregate there seven days a week for both meals. Most of Mary’s customers aren’t local, so they typically drive as far as 70 miles out of their way to get there. And sometimes customers come from even farther away. The result of this widespread popularity is that business at Mary’s suffers the most when gas prices are high.
Loyalists often plan their trips through the area so that they can make Strawn in time for a meal. That’s brand loyalty. That’s bona fide, chicken-fried craving.
Though Mary has been approached more than a dozen times about opening additional locations of her namesake eatery, she’s not interested. She likes to get in and work with her waitstaff and collaborate with the cooks. She likes to keep things simple.
E.R. Bills is a writer from Aledo.