Secret of the Gravy

The allure of the infamous JJ’s Special at the Oxford

Story by Justin Franz

The Oxford's legendary JJ's Special. (Photo by Eric Oravsky)

Jeff Huffman reaches for a silver spoon that sticks out of a silver cylinder and piles on the gravy. It is safe to say that he does this every night he cooks at the Oxford. Since 1986, JJ’s Special has been ordered 185,831 times, according to a laminated sign that is taped to the fridge, behind the café in the century-old saloon.

Marshall, an employee, says it is the establishment’s most popular dish, and that at the end of every year the Ox calculates how many were sold that year and adds that sum to the total.

JJ’s special gravy has brought people to the Oxford, known simply as “the Ox” to locals, time and time again. And what exactly is its draw? It’s part of a $7.00 dish that consists of chicken fried steak, eggs, hash browns and toast, completely doused in the orange-brown gravy named after a former owner. It’s delightful, it’s disgusting, and it has become folklore in the Missoula Valley.

The Oxford Saloon opened in 1883, the same year the Northern Pacific Railroad came to town, on the corner of Higgins and Broadway. Back then, tired and worn-out railroaders walked down from the depot to unwind with a whiskey and a steak.

Some of those railroaders appear in old prints on the walls of the establishment’s “new” location, on the corner of Pine and Higgins, where it moved in the 1940s. But the reality is that there is nothing new about the Oxford.

Black-and-white prints line the yellowed walls, weathered from years of smoking that only came to an end last October. Sitting below those nicotine-stained walls are sets of tables and chairs in front of a bar that on one end serves as a café, on the other as a drinker’s haven. Old leather stools line the bar, some bandaged with tape, across from a grill and refrigerator and all the other necessities to create a full meal.

It is there that Huffman works a world of aluminum appliances, with the grace and accuracy of an Olympic figure skater, spinning and sliding along the grill, spatula in hand, as he flips mounds of burgers and hash browns, the staples of a “greasy spoon” establishment.

“I’ve worked in quite a few dives like this over the years,” Huffman said. Originally from Memphis, Tenn., he’s waited tables, tended the bar and manned the kitchen.

“As dives go, I’d give this place a three-and-a-half out of five, which is good,” he said with the honest smile of someone from the South.

Taking a momentary break from whirling around the small kitchen, he rips out a small order book and flips the white page over his hand.

“What can I get you?”

Four friends sit before him. One is a vegetarian. The second is not hungry. The other two order the JJ’s, which guarantees that the tally on the fridge will increase to at least 185,833 served in 2010.

With red cups of water passed around to the guests, Huffman returns to his aluminum world to prepare the meal.

While Huffman is new to town, Marshall — who would only give his nickname — was born and raised in Missoula and has been working at the Ox for almost five years. He’s no stranger to the bar and said that when he was younger, he spent more then his fair share of time here.

Tonight, he is working the back room, where they sell various small items and cash chips for the poker table. He stands behind old iron bars, in a black cowboy hat and a red velvet vest, looking everything like an extra in an old John Wayne Western.

From this spot, Marshall has seen a lot.

“Blood, guts, vomit, even a guy throwing his head through the front window one night,” he said, adding that the Ox is still a rough-and-tumble, Old West type of place.

“I’ve seen it all,” he said.

Well, almost. What he hasn’t seen is the recipe for JJ’s special gravy, which according to him is a tightly guarded secret that only two people know, one being the current owner.

Since 1986, JJ’s Special has been ordered more than 185,831 times. (Photo by Eric Oravsky)

According to Marshall, the gravy was created by then-owner John Mulligan sometime back in the 1970s, when he was just messing around with ingredients. What Marshall does know is that the main ingredients include chicken stock, Tabasco and Cajun pepper.

“That’s all I know, but there are lots of other ingredients in there,” he said.

Once the mixture is concocted, it comes out as a brown, peppery goop that looks like mud on a late spring day. It’s stewing in the silver cauldron, near the deep fryer, in front of Huffman.

After scooping out the gravy and plopping it onto the plates, Huffman balances the glassware on his arms, careful not to spill anything on his white button-down shirt as he walks over the order.

The plates barely hit the table before the friends start grabbing forks and jabbing the dish with anticipation. Even the vegetarian takes hold of a French fry and dunks it into the brown pond. The friend who has already eaten looks across the table and makes a sly remark that it’s one of the few things on the menu that won’t make you sick. Brady Moore, one of the two who’ve actually ordered the JJ’s, has drunkenly dined on this dish before. He said that there seems to be less gravy on it this time. Then again, when you’re drunk not everything is as it seems. That includes taste.

When you’re drunk, that gravy is the most heavenly thing you have ever tasted. It’s evident from the faces drunken friends have made — an expression of pure, involuntary joy.

It is the memory of that orgasmic taste that makes you leery of indulging in the meal when you aren’t under the influence of alcohol. Partly because you worry that it won’t meet your delusional expectations. Partly because when it comes right down to it, no normal person who wants to remain healthy would really want to eat something as loaded with cholesterol as this dish.

Then again, sometimes you have to put caution to the wind, and that’s what these four friends are doing on this Thursday night, shortly after 9 p.m.

It is one of those rare moments when the bar is calm and you can actually hear what your friends are saying. It’s when “things can happen at a moment’s notice, and we have to be on our toes,” Marshall said.

Still chomping down, Moore isn’t disappointed with his treat, even though the only drug he’s on is codeine, an attempt to relieve a nagging cough. While no otherworldly joy is expressed on his face, it is certainty a pleased look, made more so by the fact that his roommate is picking up the bill.

And indeed, the food is good, in a meat-and-potatoes way. Every bite is encased in spice, but not in a painful, “Oh my God, I need water,” way, more in a subtle and enjoyable way. Plus, the gravy isn’t reserved for the centerpiece of fried meat, as you drag fries, eggs and toast alike though the warm brown sludge.

All agree that it is a hard taste to describe, even knowing at least a few of the items that it includes. The closest description the friends can come up with is that this is what would happen if the gravy from your Thanksgiving dinner sprouted legs and moved to Mexico. What all, including the vegetarian, agree on is that it is good. Good enough to slide one’s thumb across the empty plate after the meal has been consumed, in hopes of getting that last trace of flavor.

To quote Moore, “It tastes like gravy with a kick.”

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