Last summers mention of biscuit and gravy nirvana close to home in Castroville (Biscuits and Gravy Quarterly, http://www.americanfolk.com/bgq/) and reading The Grapes of Wrath by Salinas native son, John Steinbeck, set off a few months worth of B&G evaluations. Revisits to old favorites and the search for new pointed me toward rural backroads, to truck stops, along the waterfront, and to warehouse districts to find the eateries frequented by working folk. My notes from these encounters are presented below in order of least to most favorite.
#16 COUNTRY WAFFLES, Vallejo Giant-size, chewy and tough biscuit. Gluey gravy with a few fly specks of flavorless meat-like bits, hyped on the menu as an old and famous recipe. Infamously bad, Id say, this to-go B&G was inedible and went straight into the garbage can.
#15 JOY OF EATING, Vallejo (http://dinerboard.com/restdetails.pht...) Really wanted to like this busy breakfast counter and booths surrounded by railroad tchotchkes. While known for its house-baked bread, this expertise did not extend to the biscuits, which were spongy, rather tough and over baked. The satiny gravy with a few browned nubs of country sausage had surprisingly little flavor. [Note: the French toast orders made with the famous bread looked pretty good and the one omelet that passed by was a dried-out looking, thin, three-fold topped with a melted square of American cheese artfully placed dead center.
#14 HANKS CREEKSIDE BISTRO, Santa Rosa This is the split-personality restaurant - as Hanks serving Americana for breakfast and lunch (6am to 2pm), then at dinner time becoming Emiles with a French accent. Very popular for breakfast, there was a long line when I showed up on a Sunday. But the four counter seats were open and I cozied up to watch Aaron and Nathan, the short-order cooks in action. Omelets, hash browns and cottage potatoes, eggs, and pancakes were their domaine. When I heard one of the cooks ask the woman next to me whether shed have her usual B&G, it raised my hopes that something special might be uncovered. Unfortunately, my dreams were dashed. The high-rising and feather-light biscuits were quite good the split halves were over an inch high and airy. But the gravy was too thick, overly pasty and, despite the many nubs of country sausage, the flavor had been leeched out. When I reached for the jam jar to try to salvage the biscuits, the strawberry preserves were sugary and too stiff with excess pectin. B&G with a couple eggs was $6.25. Looking around for what might be more appetizing for a return visit, I noted that plates of hash browns were barely browned and looked soft and overdone, as did the cottage potatoes. Sitting over the bubbling bain marie of hollandaise sauce, I could tell that it was over-stabilized and floury with a dull sheen. Likewise, I watched the cooks defrost frozen, pre-breaded chicken fried steaks in the microwave, then hide the evidence under the pasty country gravy. The wait staff and cooks were warm and friendly, yet Im not sure what I would come back here for. The biscuits tempt, but Id have to bring my own jam.
#13 THREE COOKS CAFÉ, Petaluma Famous locally for cheap, hearty and gigantic servings of food, here B&G can be substituted for toast on any of the breakfast combos for $1.75 more. Choosing the 2 eggs with home fries @ $3.50, plus the B&G option, a huge platter of food was soon plonked down on my table. A daunting breakfast spread for only $5.25. Two large fluffy-style biscuits split and arrayed in a half circle were topped with thick and starchy gravy. A bit of sausage meat and a little ham give some interest, but all in all the gravy was much too heavy, lacking richness and tasting of undercooked flour. I reached for the Tabasco bottle for the only flavor. However, the very good home fries cut in smallish cubes were well-seasoned, parsleyed, crusty brown all over but not overcooked into mushdom, saved the day and are worth writing home about. The homemade corned beef hash on the menu also intrigues maybe next time. [Try a seat at the counter or a walk down the 2 wide outdoor corridor to the bathrooms for an extra dose of ambience.] Open Wed-Sun, 6am-2pm and Fridays until 8:30pm.
#12 OWL CAFÉ, Cloverdale In business since 1933, The Owl, as its affectionately called by the locals, was founded in the midst of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The menu calls it historic what finer place to celebrate The Grapes of Wrath could there be? The interior is filled with owl-themed bric-a-brac and illustrations, as well as an extensive collection of beer can airplanes. During the long wait for my order of B&G, $5.95, I could hear the soft metallic sound of a whisk at work emanating from the kitchen. The end result of this hand labor was a plate with two split biscuits piled with chalk white gravy. And, I do mean piled, like in a small mound. The gravy had the most unique texture almost mousse-like, airy and whipped up enough to hold a soft peak and stand up on its own. The taste was milky (almost like nonfat milk powder) and greaseless with some bits of well-browned ham, in essence, very bland. The dense biscuits were on the tough side, almost rubbery. The price seemed steep for the quality and quantity. Open every day, 7:30am to 9:30pm.
#11 MARVINS RESTAURANT, Novato On a sunny autumn morning, sitting outside at a sidewalk umbrella table suited me and several other patrons just fine. My first time here, I was excited to see platters heaped with good looking hash browns, home fries, fluffy omelets, and abundant breakfast meats. Seemed like a good non-trendoid spot to order biscuits with homemade country gravy, $4.95. However, the B&G had the toughest biscuits anywhere, needing a knife to break them open after a fork failed to do the job. I suspected theyd been overnuked in the microwave among other abuses. The gravy was very tasty, hinting of the chorizo and linguica on the menu, plus bacon, ham, breakfast sausage and oozing with pan drippings, but was thick and stiff enough to stand up a straw. It was strangely overly pasty even though it tastes like its made with half and half . The coffees good, served with cream, and the fresh, frothy orange juice is room temp and squeezed to order. With this attention to freshness and quality, Id certainly return, but not for B&G. Open Mon-Sat, 5:30am-3pm; Sun, 7am-2pm.
#10 MR. MOMS CAFÉ, Petaluma (http://www.sterba.com/petaluma/mrmom/) The array of contractors pick-ups parked in the lot and slightly run down exterior perked up my B&G radar to try Mr. Moms for the first time. With a brown interior and booth and counter seating, this had the ambience of a truck stop that got caught in the path of urban development. Since it was lunchtime, I went all out to order the chicken fried steak with hash browns (home fries or mashed potato patties offered too), a couple eggs over easy, and biscuits substituting for toast. The waitress had recommended it, saying that they bread their own CFS here and dont use pre-fab. A good call, the CFS has a crispy filigreed breading and a light seasoning of salt and pepper. While a bit tough in a couple spots that needed more pounding, this was a good example. The eggs were harder than they should be, and the hash browns were very crunchy and browned but oddly gooey in the middle. The biscuits had a nice irregular top surface from being patted gently into shape rather than rolled and a tender crumb. The gravy was too thick for my druthers, but didnt taste starchy, and had a comforting country taste from the pan drippings and specks of ham and sausage. While this was a decent deal, the place lost points for offering margarine instead of butter, strong disinfectant smells and the excess of flies buzzing over my food. Open Mon-Sat, 6am-3pm, closed Sunday.
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If youve made it this far, youre almost half-way done and have waded through the worst of it. The remaining places are all recommended.
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#9 MY CAFÉ, Vallejo (http://dinerboard.com/restdetails.pht...) Near the waterfront and ferry terminal, this 50s era coffee shop sports lots of vinyl and yards of formica counters. The location and signage boasting homestyle cooking caught my eye as a good candidate for B&G. Two puffy largish biscuits were split in half and covered with a generous amount of very smooth and creamy white gravy ($4.95). I got these to go, yet the moist and tender style of biscuit had the substance to hold up. The tasty gravy was studded with many cross-cut slices of nicely browned breakfast link sausage and dominated by the flavor of black pepper. Maybe a little plasticized, over emulsified and stabilized from an assist from a packaged gravy mix, but the gestalt was so much better than a lot of whats out there. This was a substantial and a credible effort, and one of the few times I didnt reach for the hot sauce for more flavor punch.
#8 PEARLS HOMESTYLE COOKING, Sonoma Always busy and tucked away in a strip mall, this is a popular spot with locals for bountiful breakfasts. The retro look of chrome and red leatherette is echoed in the diner style comfort food menu options. B&G comes with a couple eggs and choice of hash browns or home fries. Ordered extra crispy, my hash browns were a beautiful crusty golden brown and the rich buttery taste almost made me forgive the mushy interior. The eggs were not over easy, having been rushed in a too hot pan with tough brown-edged whites and yolks harder than they should be. The split biscuits were sinkers - too dense and flattened with a spongy texture. But what carried the day here was the delicious country gravy. The thinnest body of any tried, this was a guilt-free version made with lean chicken apple sausage, savory minced onion and milk, and while noticeably grease-free, still packed with flavor. [Note: while the menu offers fresh orange juice, what I was served was not.
#7 CANYON CAFÉ, American Canyon (http://dinerboard.com/restdetails.pht...) A favorite stop for biker clubs touring the Napa Valley with shaded parking so welcome on hot summer days. One smallish biscuit, split, in a half-order, $2.95, was tender, light and verging on flaky. Smooth and creamy, the country gravy had a golden tinge and a smoky ham fat flavor dotted with some fried pieces of ham. This had a distinctive taste and was definitely made here. A bit too greasy, but quite decent and acceptable. [A pretty good burger can be had here for lunch or dinner chuck is fresh-ground daily and hand-formed into loose almost fluffy patties.
#6 SARDINE CAN, Vallejo (http://dinerboard.com/restdetails.pht...) - Located on the docks across the inlet from Mare Island, diners can sail up to the picnic tables in the drafty, lean-to dining area. Decorated with maritime gear, beer ads and 49er momentos, this is a hang out for plenty of salty types. A side of B&G, $3.95, included one biscuit topped with made to order country gravy. The biscuit was rough-hewn and a bit overdone, but in a good way, making it crusty and crunchy on the outside and more crumbly inside. In this firm state, it was an excellent textural foil for standing up to the richly meated gravy. Thick but not overly so, the gravy had the smokiest bacon scent of the many versions tasted, chockfull of chopped lengths of breakfast links and bacon pieces. Great flavor but unfortunately way too greasy, as the meats had not been adequately browned or rendered and had many pieces of soft, white fat. This one needed the vinegar snap and heat of Tabasco to cut through the fattiness. But for the grease factor, it couldve been a contender.
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The final five are more like a four-way tie for second place with one clear winner on top. The quality levels are well-matched with rankings assessed by personal style preferences, YMMV.
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#5 BLUEBIRD CAFÉ, Hopland (http://wwwc.catalog.com/cgibin/var/me... ) A chowhound pick and a few miles north of the Bay Area in Mendocino County, Bluebird is the picture of what a country cookhouse should be seats at the counter, baskets of housemade breakfast pastries, a variety of pies in the case, local farm fresh ingredients, and good strong coffee (Thanksgiving brand). On the weekend brunch menu, chicken fried steak and country gravy with two eggs, home fries and a basket of pastries is priced at $8.50, then I added a couple biscuits for another buck. The biscuits were airy wonders, very light and delicate with a fine-grained, almost powdery crumb. Once again the jam jar disappointed with overly sweet and stiffly pectinated strawberry preserves. The gravy was savory with lots of black pepper, flecks of country sausage and bits of onion. Almost brown and too tan in color and taste to suit the purists perhaps, the gravy was just a tad too heavy and pasty, and the onion component dominated. The big coarsely cut pieces of home fried potatoes looked good with golden brown edges, but were overcooked and too mushy. I did like the chunks of bell pepper tossed into the mix. The CFS had a good crunchy breading that was well-seasoned and tasted of poultry seasoning herbs. While I have to mark off for the overly tenderized and chewed up meat, it was pretty tasty, all in all. I packaged up the two pieces of breakfast pastries and nibbled them a few hours later to tide over the slight hollow at lunch time - the raspberry streusel bar was nice, but the cinnamon roll was doughy and undercooked inside. Cant say enough about those biscuits though.
#4 FLAKEY CREAM COFFEE SHOP & DO-NUTS, Healdsburg Nothing fancy here, just wholesome work-a-day breakfasts and lunches at low coffee shop prices. Havent been crazy about the breakfast potatoes or the coffee at Flakey (sic) Cream, but the chocolate old-fashioned donut is the best of type. B&G-wise, two big, high-riser biscuits with a couple eggs and a cup of gravy on the side are $4.75. Baked to order, so be patient, these hot biscuits were meltingly tender and crumbly, and almost flaky. I couldnt resist eating one of the halves in its pure and simple state slathered with whipped butter (skip the packaged preserves). Richly flavored bright white cream gravy with a dash of black pepper and browned bits from the pan drippings plus a couple small pieces of ham, it flowed like a silky dream when spooned over the biscuits. Would have liked more meat, but at this price, itd be easy to add a side of sausage to soothe that urge and still call it low budget. With a dash of hot sauce on eggs over easy, this was seriously close to the mark and a bargain to boot.
#3 MAGGIES HAMBURGERS, Vallejo A local institution (pictured below) thats been around for more than 40 years, the inside features Betty Boop, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe posters, 49er memorabilia, and several video game stations. Most of the seating is along the L-shaped counter, plus a couple small tables. Burgers or breakfast seemed to be the things to order here, so I tried to kill two birds with one stone on my initial visit. The country breakfast, $5.79, includes three eggs, hash browns, sausage or beef patty, one biscuit, and country gravy. I ordered this with the hamburger patty, extra crispy on the potatoes and had them hold one egg. The big biscuit was soft, tender, and very lofty. The slightly ecru in color, creamy gravy napped smoothly over the biscuit halves. Intense homemade flavor from pan drippings, not too greasy or tasting of uncooked starch, right amount of black pepper, and only a few bits of browned sausage, but this meal didnt lack for protein. The beef patty was nothing special - maybe the sausage would have been a better choice - I wont be ordering a burger here anytime soon. What will definitely bring me back would be the excellent hash browns. Spread very thin on the flat top with a bit of butter and crisped to golden brown perfection with al dente texture in the middle some of the best Ive been served in years. For B&G alone, an order is $3.49.
#2 ROBS ROADHOUSE GRILL, Windsor The ability of this kitchen to take a fresh look at American classics continues to amaze and delight. As much as I loved the eggs Florentine and the superlative hollandaise sauce here, the chicken fried steak with potatoes, two eggs, and biscuits and gravy, $8.50, may displace it in my brunch affections. The thoroughly original CFS starts as a slice of smoked tri-tip, pounded out, battered, and then fried in a skillet. The breading was too greasy and softened under the gravy, but the flavor of the CFS resonates deep. The eggs over easy were cooked slowly in butter to tender, runny goodness. The body and weight of the pale beige gravy seemed to come from a reduction of cream rather than relying on roux. Robs talent for butterfat showed its hand here. The multitude of thin, browned cross-cut disks of little smoky sausages added another layer of smoky complexity. The lightly colored biscuits had a crisp thin shell and a melt-in-the-mouth tenderness.
#1 GARDEN COURT CAFÉ & BAKERY, Glen Ellen (http://gardencourtcafe.com/) I hadnt been here since the place was sold some four or so years ago. It now feels more down-home and less yuppified than under the previous owners. Still I found it amusing to spot the wino locals swirling their fresh OJ absent-mindedly in the wine stemware. The motto here is If you leave hungry, its your own fault! I got the point when I spied the big soup bowl serving of Grannys sausage and gravy coming toward me. Lots of pride in the old family recipe here and deservedly so ivory white with creamy mouthfeel, perfect weight and coatability, not floury. Note this is sausage AND gravy, not sausage gravy, and loaded with bulk breakfast sausage (made here), and just the right amount of black pepper and grease. For $6.25, it came with two good-sized drop style biscuits that were a marvel of crunchy craigs and valleys, tender and crumbly, very short and almost cream scone-like. I broke one into the bowl of gravy and nibbled on a bit of the other with the whipped butter and very good strawberry preserves. This was a more than filling breakfast (glad I skipped the eggs and grits!) that got a bit salty in the second half and needed to be washed down with a glass of water and two cups of strong coffee (excellent, btw, served with real half and half). This unadorned and pure expression of B&G was unquestionably Number One of the bunch.