Like Italy during the Renaissance or Muscle Shoals in the sixties and seventies, one Texas restaurant was a hotbed of ideas and inventions during the last century. The Pig Stand, a Texas chain now whittled down to one location on Broadway in San Antonio, claims to have invented three of the most beloved diner dishes in history: Texas toast, onion rings, and chicken fried steak sandwiches.
Just like the restaurant itself, with its checkerboard floors and red vinyl booths, the stories behind these inventions are short on frills. “We needed a thicker toast to serve with things like our hearty fish and chips,” says owner Mary Ann Hill. “So, the owner at the time, Royce Hailey, asked the bread company if there was any way they could cut the bread any thicker. They did, and we started buttering the slices and toasting them on the grill.”
The same goes for onion rings: “A cook battered an onion one day and fried it,” Hill says. “People loved it.” And while the cook had the fryer going, they tossed in a cube steak, and then sandwiched it between two pieces of toast. That chicken fried steak remains one of the Pig Stand’s bestsellers, along with their eponymous pig sandwich, a smoked pork sandwich served with relish and homemade sauce.
But like all history, these origins are contested. A recipe for “fried onions and parmesan cheese” appears in a British cookbook in the early 1800s, and battered steaks descending from schnitzel first appeared in German-Texas communities around the same time (its sandwich form became wildly popular when Dairy Queens across the state began serving an iteration dubbed “the Dude”). It’s likely, though, that these recipes weren’t widespread and various institutions “invented” them again and again over the years. The Pig Stand, for one, holds fast to its claims.
Today, the diner’s once bright multicolored facade has faded beneath the overpasses where I-35 and I-37 converge, and the crowds that used to file in twenty-four hours a day have dwindled through the years. “Broadway has really changed a lot,” says Hill, who began working at the Pig Stand as a teenager in 1967. “But I’ve kept the diner pretty much the same way as when I first came here with my dad when I was a kid.”
Jesse G. Kirby opened the first Pig Stand in Dallas in 1921, serving customers in the parking lot at one of the first drive-in restaurants. In the 1930s, Kirby had expanded to more than 130 locations from Texas to California. By the early 2000s, all of the locations had closed—until Hill brought back the Broadway spot in 2007.
“There’s a chance the Pig Stand comes to an end one day,” Hill says. “But I think it’s held on this long because when people come to eat here, we become like family.” For now, one hundred years after the Pig Stand’s founding, it’s a time of celebration. Hill and her team will be commemorating the centennial all year, capping it off in October with a birthday party complete with pig sandwich sliders, a cake, and all the Texas toast you can order.