Biscuits and gravy are about as Southern as it gets, and few people knew as much about the region as author and Georgia native John Egerton, who died in 2013. His Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History acts as an observant encyclopedia for both the way food was made and consumed in the antebellum South, and the way it had developed by the time the book was published in 1987.
Here's what he writes about sawmill gravy, that simple filler of broke bellies and constant companion of biscuits everywhere, also known as country gravy, sausage gravy or just gravy: "Even the name suggests poverty," Egerton writes. "By some accounts, it derives from the fact that backwoods sawmill crews often subsisted on little more than coffee, biscuits, and gravy. ... In some parts of Kentucky, the dish was called poor-do — a little something on which the poor made do."
As for the biscuits, a remnant of our British overlords since Americanized into what the English might now call scones, here's author James Agee in 1939, writing in his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, about Southern sharecroppers. Datelined "Rural Alabama, 1936" it reads: "The biscuits are large and shapeless, not cut round, and are pale, not tanned, and are dusty with flour. They taste of flour and soda and damp salt."
Combine the two, along with pretty much any ingredients you want, and you're cooking. Here's what we discovered around the region.
R&R Coffee Café (11424 Black Forest Road, rnrcoffeecafe.com) owner and roaster Ryan Wanner is going to be straight with you about his cheddar biscuits: "It's definitely a loose version of the word 'biscuit,' I won't lie," he says with a laugh over the phone. "It's kind of right between a bun and a biscuit. We wanted to play with it a little bit."
It looks similar to a hamburger bun, and indeed can be used for just such a purpose. But we got it in a bowl topped with two fried eggs ($5.95 plus $1.25 for the eggs) and incredible gravy. Colored a dirty yellowish-brownish, it had the flavor, richness and balance of a more expensive dish. I, uh, licked the bowl.
R&R makes it with sausage crumbles, chorizo, pepper, paprika, bacon grease, Royal Crest milk and a splash of chicken stock for salt. You never get overwhelmed by the taste, and you never feel like you're approaching your fat-intake limit. The only downside to the experience is that trying to cut soggy buns in a bowl of gravy is a definite pain in the ass. Otherwise, nothing but love for the café in the woods.
"Your classic recipes don't have to be massively difficult," Wanner says. "It's just making sure you follow the recipes right and try to keep it consistent."
In general, it doesn't get much better than Milt's Coffee Shop (2314 E. Platte Ave., 634-9016), a place that time forgot but hungry diner traffic never does. They're so serious about our entrée in question that they pull out the all-caps on the menu: "ALL YOU CAN EAT PANCAKES OR BISCUITS & GRAVY (mix or match) ... $4.95."
Still, having tried before, I can tell you that it's pretty hard to make it to a second plate of the restaurant's biscuits and gravy, let alone eat enough to satisfy the calling of All You Can Eat. But it's not for a lack of enjoyment. You can easily make a case that Milt's has the best biscuits and gravy in this group, falling short only in my preference for R&R's snazzy take.
We asked an employee for details on the plate's creation, but none were forthcoming, other than that everything is made in-house. Thus, what we know: Milt's kicks out plate after plate full of three soft biscuits split in half, tasting of baking soda, and modestly topped with an off-white gravy flecked with black pepper and sausage crumbles. It's a velvety sauce with a dull sheen, smelling like breakfast and warming the stomach. The heated taste of spices and meat carry the flavor, but it never goes too big. My only regret is that I have room for only one plate.
A staple since 1977, with the same recipe the whole time, the biscuits and gravy ($4.95/full) at The Donut Mill (310 W. Midland Ave., Woodland Park, thedonutmill.com) is an intense experience. Manager Eric Ribellia was willing to confirm that the biscuits and gravy are both made in-house, but would say nothing about the ingredients. "They do not want to let [the recipe] out," he says of ownership.
We can say the soft biscuits cut easily, even with a plastic fork. There's a very strong sausage flavor to the gravy, unpleasantly reminding me of the toppings on a Totino's Party Pizza. There must be an impressive amount of flour in the sauce, since a bite cut from its undulating surface leaves carved cliffs behind. And God knows black pepper was used, as sausage spice and pepper heat is about all one can taste.
As with most of the contenders, The Donut Mill's "full" version is huge. I'd go with half if you're not trying to die before lunch.
I expected Sandy's Restaurant (6940 Space Village Ave., 651-0596) to be full of military uniforms from nearby Peterson Air Force Base, but instead it had more of a familial feel, filled with what seemed to be eastern Colorado farm folks. This feeling intensified when the diner on my left asked one server how sports were going in college, and the diner paying on my right chatted with the cashier about her gastrointestinal problems.
This was the most difficult biscuits and gravy ($3.75/half) I tried. Sandy's offers some of the best biscuits yet — soft, crumbly, deeply flavorful, holding up well — but our gravy's texture was somewhere between cake batter and bread dough. You probably could've stood a fork up in the middle of the plate. It was also very spicy, which I dig, but there wasn't a ton of other flavor available apart from, yes, flour.