In some regards, all gravy is an acquired taste. Chunks of the population find cream gravy floury and repulsive, red-eye gravy bitter and repulsive, and brown gravy salty, peppery, and repulsive. Yet all these species of gravy have their aficionados and their shrines. Here are some of them.
There’s not a lot to cream gravy: flour, fat, and milk, heated and stirred smooth. Country sausage is usually added to provide extra protein to what is otherwise some fairly empty calories. However, all empty calories are not created equal, especially at these places:
Smoke, Dallas: Gravy is a proletarian food, and Smoke services the extreme upper end of the proletariat. Even so, Smoke’s take on biscuits and gravy, with two biscuits swimming in cream gravy studded with executive chef Tim Byres’ homemade sausage, then finished with a streak of spicy green-peppercorn brown gravy, is a downright bargain at $7.
Clanton’s, Vinita, Okla.: Clanton’s is the oldest continually family-owned restaurant on Route 66 (since 1927), and at Clanton’s it’s all about the chicken-fried steak, immortalized in word and video and topped with a cream gravy so authentic it ought to be on a statue and not on a plate. Finish it off with a wedge of homemade pie and you’ll understand what sustained travelers on America’s most famous transcontinental highway.
Harvest, Louisville: Louisville is about as far north as genuine cream gravy is allowed to travel, and Harvest does it best. A farm-to-table favorite of Louisville foodies, cream gravy – the delectable smoked-peppercorn version pictured above – makes its appearance with buttermilk fried chicken, bread pudding, and homemade hot sauce. Just for the spice, you understand.
There’s about as much alchemy as there is kitchen science to the making of red-eye gravy. Everyone agrees that drippings and scrapings from a good country ham make the base. But then opinions differ. Some say water is the next ingredient; others insist on coffee – the blacker the better. In New Orleans the coffee is cut with chicory.
The overall look is less than appetizing, with shards of country ham and an uneasy mix of fat and coffee/water that give it a bloodshot look.
Regardless of how it looks, those who love red-eye gravy say it tastes like heaven – especially at these three establishments:
The Waysider, Tuscaloosa, Ala.: “Subtlety” is not usually used to describe red-eye gravy, but the Waysider offers up a complex take on red-eye gravy that mingles smoky ham flavors with strong coffee. Pair the ham and red-eye gravy with some of the Waysider’s cheese grits and you’ll understand what the fuss is about.
Loveless Cafe, Nashville, Tenn.: The name sounds like a Nashville cliché, but since 1951 the Loveless has been dishing out (mainly) chicken and biscuits, until now the restaurant churns out around 4,000 biscuits a day. The café drips Nashville atmosphere (read: autographed Sheb Woolley pictures on the walls) about the same way the country ham drips red-eye gravy. Grab some biscuits to go and you’re steeled for a big day in Music City.
The Roanoker, Roanoke, Va.: This is the place. You want red-eye gravy, you go to the Roanoker. What seems like a typical breakfast place of the sort that used to be attached to a motel back in the day is actually the world headquarters of awesome red-eye gravy. Order the country-ham platter and you’re treated to thin slices of maroon-colored ham topped with a gravy that goes easy on the coffee and kicks the ham flavor up to 11. And have we mentioned the warm, honeyed clouds that are their biscuits? We haven’t? Well, if you’re ever in western Virginia, this is where you’re stopping for breakfast.
Brown gravy covers a multitude of sins – literally, in some cases. And brown could mean the pale tan of turkey gravy or the rich brown of beef gravy). However its origins, brown gravy reaches new heights in these fine establishments:
The Bonneville, Austin: The Bonneville is famous for traditional poutine (check our previous post on Canadian comfort food for the lowdown on poutine), but what makes its poutine stand out is the flavor of its gravy. It delivers a strong and welcome chicken kick to the normal salt-and-pepper flavors. Throw in some robust fries and cheese curds flown in from Wisconsin, a whoop and a holler from our place, and you have a dish that’ll warm (and clog) the heart of any gravy lover – and most Canadians, too.
Murphy’s Steak House, Bartlesville, Okla.: The menu proudly states, “Gravy Over All,” and they ain’t kidding. Steak house or no, you’re here for the hot hamburger: a chopped-up hamburger laid on white bread, covered with a heap of fries, and the fries crowned with a lava flow of rich brown gravy. Throw on some onions if you like, forget about the calories and cholesterol, and just enjoy. Sure, there are other options – hot beef, hot steak, hot ham, hot cheeseburger – but nothing does it like a hot hamburger. And if you’re especially gravy-crazy, you can order a side bowl to go along with your hot hamburger. You might even be able to persuade them to serve it with a straw.
Johnny’s Po-Boys, New Orleans: It’s almost unfair that New Orleans should have two signature sandwiches, but it has the po’boy and the muffuletta, and it isn’t giving either one back. There’s not a lot of ambiance to Johnny’s other than what emanates naturally from the French Quarter, but you’re there for the food – specifically, the surf-and-turf po’boy, which layers hot roast beef with scrumptious gravy, and then tops the whole mess with fried shrimp, lettuce, tomato and mayo. No matter what you like to eat, it’s on this sandwich. With gravy.