Best Breakfasts 2019

Biscuits and Gravy Is Portland’s Signature Dish. Fight Me.

The dish may have Southern roots, but biscuits and gravy is as ubiquitous in Portland as microbrews and passive aggression. And we have the history to back it up.

By Heather Arndt Anderson April 23, 2019 Published in the May 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

La Luna's excellent biscuits and gravy

Image: Michael Novak

When done correctly, tender, airy biscuits draped in silky, pork sausage–studded country gravy are a thing of beauty. And despite Portland’s flirtation with bacon, Benedicts, and grain bowls, I’m making a case that biscuits and gravy is our city’s signature dish, as iconic as Boston’s baked beans or Chicago’s deep-dish pizza. As a fourth-generation Stumptown native and the published author of books on both Portland’s gustatory history and the honest-to-goodness history of breakfast, I am uniquely qualified to make this declaration, so deal with it.

Exhibit A: Biscuits and gravy are an Oregon heirloom. Even in the dish’s homeland of the Southern United States, B&G was the food of historically impoverished Appalachia, soundly ignored (if not openly derided) by the wealthy, mint julep–swilling set: the biscuits were austere baked pucks, drowned in a sauce cobbled together from milk and flour cooked in sausage drippings.

Some of Portland’s earliest transplants were black food service workers who had migrated from biscuits and gravy’s birthplace in Southern Appalachia in the late 1800s to cook on railway dining cars and at the Portland Hotel (the site now home to Pioneer Courthouse Square). More Southerners arrived during World War II to work at the Kaiser shipyards. With each wave of arrivals came an increased connection to, and appetite for, Southern dishes. I’d contend that making a dish your own for 100 years imbues each bite with a bit of civic pride. That’s not to say that certain places, including two of our most well-known brunch spots, the Country Cat and Screen Door, don’t embrace B&G as a direct line to the South—just that being traditionally Southern doesn’t automatically make their versions any better than say, the Northwest-style plate at old-timer Bread and Ink (see listings, below).

Exhibit B: It’s a logger dish, and Oregon had tons of loggers. To wit: country gravy’s other popular nickname is sawmill gravy. Oregon’s timber ties to the South go back to Georgia-Pacific’s mass post-WWII land grab. Some Southerners, including my granddad, came to the Northwest for jobs in the forests and mills, and logging camp cooks relied heavily on cheap, calorie-dense food that could be slung en masse. Portland’s embrace of the hearty dish is, I do assert, strictly because until a couple of decades ago, we were still a faded industrial town catering to loggers, sawmill workers, and their ilk.

Exhibit C: It’s currently on nearly every menu in town. As a staple of the poor, biscuits and gravy would never have appeared on fancy restaurant or hotel menus in Portland’s past. By the early 1980s, though, seemingly out of nowhere, spots around town began casually advertising the B&G, as though it had always held the same breakfast menu real estate as bacon and eggs. Perhaps it was the recession that pushed the dish from nostalgia to the plate; today it’s even a go-to at vegan haunts, served with “hot seitan” at Sweetpea Baking Co. Hardly any proper Portland restaurant would dare hawk a breakfast menu without biscuits and gravy. People would riot.

In conclusion: Biscuits and gravy is absolutely our city’s signature dish. Granted, Oregon-born tater tots could be a contender, but they lack biscuits and gravy’s omnipresence. And it sure as hell isn’t going to be doughnuts. (Sorry, Voodoo.) It’s B&G or GTFO. This is the hill I’ll die on.

Where to score the best biscuits and gravy?

La Luna Café

With its criminally creamy, pepper-flecked gravy and exceptionally crusty, square-cut biscuit, the daily breakfast slinger boasts one of the most proper versions I’ve ever had outside my own kitchen. Psst: it’s no wonder it’s awesome; the owners carried the recipe over from their old, also beloved brunch operation Simpatica. 

Bread and Ink Café

This SE Hawthorne dark horse contender’s winning plate is rich and close to perfect, though the melted Tillamook cheddar and eggs are a bit of overkill. 

Pine State Biscuits

The fried chicken-and-biscuit sandwich baron drowns its rounds in a thin, US military shit-on-a-shingle-style slurry of ground pork (or mushroom gravy, for vegans). Either way, it’s spicy and messy-wonderful. 

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