Steve Freidkin TEXAZ Grill 6003 N. 16th Street, Phoenix 602-248-7827, texazgrill.com
This is part one of my interview with Steve Freidkin, owner and operator of TEXAZ Grill. Come back tomorrow when Freidkin dishes about his favorite places to eat in Texas, the Terlingua Chili Cook-off and his last meal on earth.
When Steve Freidkin and his partner Jim Mitchell opened their Texas-style steakhouse on 16th Street and Bethany in late 1985, they didn't even have chicken-fried steak on their menu. Freidkin grew up in the beef business in Texas and Louisiana, so running a steak-centric restaurant seemed like a no-brainer.
But he and Mitchell, who drew inspiration from various grungy, cluttered steakhouses in Texas hadn't counted on the power of the restaurant's name (called Lone Star Steaks before the corporate entity of the same name made legal threats) or The Lone Star flag flying at the front door. Homesick Texans arrived in droves, all of them asking for chicken-fried steak.
After a month of fielding the same tiresome question, Freidkin broke down and made chicken-fried steak a Monday lunch special. His business took off. He added it to Wednesday night's roster as well, waiting something like seven years to actually put the signature Texas specialty on the menu.
Not that the man lacks for business acumen. By the time he was 10, Freidkin was cutting corned beef at his family's grocery store deli department in Shreveport, and by 12, he was "pulling beer," although he admits that might not have been legal -- even in Louisiana. By then, his family owned a small kosher deli in a small Southern town inhabited by maybe 200 Jewish families. "Not a smart move on my Dad's part," Freidkin admits, but by then, the boy had become inured to the food business, taking his first restaurant job at a Steak and Ale as a dishwasher. Although he dabbled around in Social Work in junior college, Freidkin always worked in restaurants, most notably the Victoria Station in Dallas, which was as wildly popular there as the one here back in the 70's. Freidkin took over the kitchen after three months, staying with the company for three years as they moved him from Portland to Seattle to Vancouver to Illinois to open and troubleshoot restaurants.
He and a friend entertained the notion of opening their own place in Portland, but they didn't have enough capital. The friend, who had attended ASU, knew somebody who knew somebody (namely, a Cork and Cleaver employee whose wife knew Bob Gosnell's wife) and Freidkin wound up in Phoenix opening the Pointe of View on 16th Street.
Three years down the road, Freidkin opened Clam Diggers at 28th Street and McDowell, a tiny place he describes as "really neat but poorly financed." It tanked two years later (in the meantime, Freidkin had shucked "more oysters than anyone in the state") and Freidkin decided to try his hand at catering, making food for Pony Express (a huge Country Western bar in Tower Plaza), PIR and Compton Terrace. Besides handling these huge venues, he was also doing backstage work for Denver-based Feyline Productions and Evening Star Productions, making food all day long and well into the night for entertainers and their massive crews. But that work quickly became a grind, and he and his friend Jim Mitchell (another Victoria Station alum) started talking about doing something small and manageable. When they heard through the grapevine one morning that the Carlos O'Brien's space was available, the two partners secured the space on a handshake that very afternoon. Now TEXAZ Grill is a dimly lit, quirky and infinitely comfortable Phoenix staple, offering up a delicious slice of Texas to Arizonans hungry for down-home.
Favorite food smell: The moment that the onions, celery, bell peppers and garlic hit a dark roux when making gumbo.
Favorite cookbook: The Joy of Cooking.
Ingredient you love to cook with: Pasta because it's a blank canvas that you can do almost anything with.
Most under-rated ingredient: Love.
Something always found in your fridge: Pickled okra.
It's your day off. What are you eating and drinking?: Pasta, which is challenging since I'm avoiding gluten. Tito's Vodka with a pickled okra.
And what are you watching or listening to?: The Who.
Favorite thing to eat growing up: My mom's homemade macaroni and cheese, especially the parts around the edges of the casserole.
Favorite thing to eat now: I had a soft shell crab at Commander's Palace in New Orleans last weekend that made me cry.
You grew up in a deli. So where do you go for a good corned beef or pastrami sandwich here in Phoenix?: My favorite deli is Scott's Generations. My favorite pastrami is at Miracle Mile. The pastrami at Katz's in New York is a religious experience.
Name a local chef (or two) you admire and why: Robert McGrath: very accomplished, has a sense of humor and he's from Texas. Christo Panagiotakopoulos: consistently great Italian food.
Where did you get your recipe for chicken-fried steak? Did you have to tweak it a bit to get it right?: I had never cooked chicken-fried steak before we opened this restaurant, although I grew up on it (even Chinese restaurants in Dallas served it). When we opened in 1985, it wasn't on the menu and customers kept requesting it. So I read some and started playing around in the kitchen and came up with something that I liked and evidently a lot of other people do too.
What sets Texas food apart from the food anywhere else?: There is a lot of tradition in most of our cooking -- influences from the deep South, Mexico, Cajun country, central Europe, and the old west. Texas is a big place with a lot of cultures stewing in the pot.
Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: