Three hundred chicken fried steaks are served each week at the Oxford Saloon and Cafe, and 259,234 have been served with the infamous JJ’s special gravy since 1986. This orange, spicy gravy is especially scrumptious poured over a plate of chicken fried steak with a side of eggs, hashbrowns and toast. There is no doubt that this orange gravy makes the meal, and it makes sense why the restaurant is keen on keeping the recipe secret. When asked about its ingredients and how it’s made, Kim Evered, the bookkeeper at the Oxford, shook his head. What makes it “For Oxford Eyes Only?”
Evered said that the gravy is relatively young compared to the long 173 year history of the restaurant. Starting in 1986, the sauce came over with one of the Oxford’s many owners, John Mulligan in the 1980’s. Evered said that Mulligan had a friend who owned the Lone Star Steakhouse in Texas and Mulligan used the sauce on chicken fried steaks later on when he bought the Oxford. Evered has worked for the restaurant since the 1970’s, and knows the recipe and the inner-workings of the restaurant.
Even though the Oxford refused to tell us the secret, we got the next best thing – a seasoned chef with the right palate to figure out its recipe.
Tony Martinez, the executive sous chef at the Food Zoo at the University of Montana, was up for the challenge of trying the gravy and picking out the key flavors, finally bringing to the surface why the gravy is so famous. He has worked at the Food Zoo for five years, and has been cooking since he was 17 years old. He went to culinary school in Vermont, and has developed an appreciation for food. He helps plan the menu each semester and enjoys educating people about food.
“It’s thinking about food as not just something you are feeding people,” said Martinez.
Some ingredients he pointed out were cayan seasoning or paprika that may give it the orange color and it’s spicy kick. It has the usual, which includes garlic, salt and pepper, flour and butter. The gravy also includes small chunks of a mystery meat, stumping Martinez. He was able to make a few guesses, based on the texture.
“Maybe it’s not hot dog,” said Martinez. “What is that? Corned beef? Ham?”
He pointed out some other interesting ingredients, one that you wouldn’t expect in gravy: Coffee. Martinez said that it resembles red-eye coffee gravy, a thin gravy made with black coffee served in the southern United States.
Even though a majority of the ingredients may never be known for sure, it is well-known by customers of Missoula as a tasty gravy. Martinez, who has not visited the Oxford since the 1990’s, said he liked it.
“Yeah, I would eat that on a chicken fried steak at three o’clock in the morning,” said Martinez.