There among the grits, okra and fried green tomatoes on any list of Southern favorites is biscuits-n-gravy, a humble dish composed exactly as it sounds: warm biscuits graciously bathing in a heaping helping of sausage-studded cream gravy. Hearty, delicious and highly caloric, this dish is nobody's friend and everyone's mistress -- something you want all the time, yet avoid for clear reasons.
As with many dishes in the southern repertoire, biscuits and gravy grew out of economics and availability; both components are easy to make with cheap ingredients that most anyone has on hand. Traditional versions pair two or three fluffy buttermilk biscuits the size of your fist with country gravy made from sausage grease and flour. To increase its divinity, the gravy is seasoned with bits of bacon or sausage and sprinkled generously with black pepper. And while the dish has just those two dominant parts, the sides are not parallel: you can cover up bad biscuits with good gravy -- yet awesome biscuits can't do jack if your gravy sucks.
So where can you get a good version around town? This week's Food Fight pits Lankford Grocery against Avalon Diner, two Houston institutions that have both graced our fair city since 1938. Isn't that an odd coincidence?
Lankford Grocery A small burger joint in the 4th Ward, Lankford Grocery operates according to one core principle: "Nothing small, nothing healthy, and nothing fast." The restaurant is a dichotomy, of sorts; the interior is dim and old-fashioned, while the exterior is welcoming and bright, a peacock of colorful tables. Yes, the place has been gentrified a bit since its appearance on "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives" (tablecloths, what?), but it still manages to maintain the original feel. It has been in its current location, after all, since 1939.
Lankford's biscuits and gravy -- only available on Saturdays -- arrive in do-it-yourself fashion: Two biscuits sit on a plate next to two sausage patties, flanked by a bowl 'o gravy as off-white as trampled snow itself. Some of us chose to dice the sausage and add it directly to the gravy, while others assembled individual bites of biscuit + sausage to dip. The biscuits here, though definitely homemade, are small. Too small. Each of us, in turn, had to ask for extras to supplement the gigantor bowl of gravy, and pretty soon they ran out. The sausages were unimpressive as well, slightly dry and a bit overcooked. But these sins can be pardoned, since the gravy? Was flat awesome. Seriously. This stuff was so beautifully delicious that the large helping -- which I hoped to take home to dress my food for the rest of the week -- was entirely devoured. At $4.50, this serving is more expensive than most, but still won't force a second mortgage.
Avalon Diner Avalon is a friendly, traditional diner offering fantastic burgers, fries, and shakes seven days a week in the heart of River Oaks. Patrons spanning the generations crowd the humble restaurant from the moment it opens at 6:30 a.m. One of my favorite parts of a meal at Avalon is the servers, who all wear aprons embroidered with their names and the year they began employment at the diner. This week I sat at the counter, where Brenda 1973 took my order. As she did so, she palled around with other servers whose aprons boasted start dates in the 1960s, making her a rookie of sorts.
Avalon's plate of biscuits and gravy looks exactly as it should: two massive biscuits, butterflied open and slathered in pepper-speckled cream gravy. The biscuits were truly a thing of beauty -- fluffy, flaky and moist. This is what real biscuits taste like. And with a smile and a laugh, Brenda 1973 assured me that, yes, they're made from scratch daily. The gravy, with bits of sausage right in there, had the telltale tiny lumps that it, too, was made in house. But though it looked as it should, the gravy wasn't quite as tasty as Lankford's -- great consistency, lovely texture, but definitely more bland. The price is right, though -- a gargantuan plate will set you back just $2.75.
The Winner: This was a tough one. In an ideal world, the biscuit people at Avalon would get with the gravy folks at Lankford to create a biscuits-n-gravy offering that's so good, singers will sing about it, dancers will dance about it, and astronauts will crave it on the moon. Until then, go to Lankford. The biscuits aren't special, but the gravy is so good, it almost doesn't matter what's underneath.