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Fried, Soaked and Savory 

R&O's Pizza provides a gravy-soaked lesson in New Orleans' edible history.

"Gravy fries, please." Utter these four simple syllables at R&O Pizza Place in Bucktown and you're in for the meat-and-potatoes ride of your life. A dish that sounds like a line cook's afterthought turns out to be the pinnacle of diner-level appetizer culture, delivered on oversized stoneware platters and coated with a thick layer of beefy shrapnel.

The fries alone -- standard bigger-than-shoestring Russets tipped with squares of dark potato skin -- aren't particularly notable; it's the gravy that makes them sing. Chocolate-colored, studded with morsels of tender beef and a little on the salty side, R&O's standard "brown gravy" turns fries into a distinctive and addictive starter. The rich, chunk-style liquid pools in the bottom of the oversized oval platter, and for true gravy aficionados, the sopping and savoring begins after the crisp potatoes are polished off.

Brown gravy -- usually of the roast beef variety -- is a hidden cornerstone of Louisiana cuisine, from New Orleans to the Cajun hinterlands and into the northern reaches of the state. It's the savory unifying bond that slathers our sandwiches, makes plate lunches memorable, and done right, can even turn an oversized beef patty into "hamburger steak." It's a homegrown specialty without an off-season.

Even in the local seafood-dominated food culture, the importance of brown gravy is not to be underestimated. Local establishments like Mother's and Parasol's built international reputations on the merits of their gravy-soaked sandwiches. A glance at any po-boy shop menu confirms that roast beef is a universal option, and that the right combination of brown gravy and slow-cooked meat can line tour groups up around the block.

Diehard fanatics -- those likely to lick a plate clean or take surreptitious sips from an unguarded gravy boat -- usually come by their obsessions honestly. In my case, the fixation came from my grandmother's magical way with a beef rump and Magnalite roaster. Her garlic-spiked, simply spiced variation on the dish was the default homecoming celebration, and her eight children and their mobs of offspring grew up thinking "roast-rice-and-gravy" was a single word. Mama's version of the life-giving elixir was a thin-bodied liquid with a texture similar to French jus. With her combination of caramelized beef drippings, browned flour and a little water, she convinced generations that gravy isn't a saucy accompaniment or by-product of the roasting process, but the reason that cattle were domesticated in the first place.

In a land where gravies are broadly color-coded (brown, red or white), styles and qualities of brown version vary wildly. At its best, brown gravy starts with liquefied fat and crispy bits of meat ("fond" in the French or "debris" in local parlance) from where the beef bonds to the pan during a slow roast. These bits are liquefied with water or stock, and sometimes thickened with flour or roux. The final product has a medium cocoa color, hints of the roast's flavoring (onion, garlic, salt, pepper), and a righteous liquid essence of beef.

In modern times, institutional mixes have increased kitchen efficiency and solidified the bottom line while often removing the gravy's flavor altogether. On one extreme, there are goopy, gelatinous gravies that coat the tongue like a bland, floury paste. On the other, there are gravies with all the pleasing texture and flavor of tap water. After a few listless gravies in a row, even true enthusiasts are tempted to swear off the stuff forever. Whether they're made from scratch or a step-saving mix, the flavorful proof is on the po-boy, surrounding the steak, or ladled over deep-fried potatoes.

Which brings us back to the magic of R&O's. Whatever the prep method, their brown gravy's texture and flavor are always consistent and intense. The thinnish consistency means that the topmost fries have just enough residual flavor while the lowest layers get maximum sauce contact.

The shards of beef seem too plentiful and evenly cut to be accidental debris, but the chunky presentation is part of the final product's magic. Whether the fragments sitting atop a three-serving platter of crispy Idahos or seeping into a toasted sesame-studded po-boy roll, the additional meat adds its flavor to the gravy and makes every bite a bit more substantial. Add a few quick shakes of Crystal sauce for heat, wash it all down with a pitcher of Abita draft, and you'll recast the commercial tagline to, "Gravy: It's what's for dinner."

click to enlarge ³Brown gravy² is a hidden cornerstone - of Louisiana cuisine best exemplified in the roast - beef po-boys and French fries of R&O PIZZA PLACE. - PABLEAUX JOHNSON
  • Pableaux Johnson
  • ³Brown gravy² is a hidden cornerstone of Louisiana cuisine best exemplified in the roast beef po-boys and French fries of R&O PIZZA PLACE.
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