RALEIGH, N.C. — Blame it on John Hartness.
At a local reading in November, writer Hartness hurled the bomb:
A Shell station at Eastway and Shamrock streets in Charlotte, N.C., has better fried chicken than Price’s Chicken Coop.
He said it. I was there.
I won’t mess with Hartness’ claim about Price’s. There are third rails of food that you just don’t touch. But go to a gas station to try the fried chicken? That, I can do. I went, liked the chicken and wrote about it on my blog.
It generated a lively exchange. Some people offered their own nominations for gas-station food, mostly fried chicken but also specialties like potato wedges and wings.
More research was clearly needed. I made a list of five places with reports of good food and picked up Hartness, a writer and poet who’s active in local theater, for a 72-mile lunch.
We also took along restaurant reviewer Helen Schwab. For a skinny girl, she can hold more food than a Costco warehouse, and she dissects flavors with the precision of an electron microscope. (On the trip, I asked her about an iced tea I had liked. She said, “Mine tasted stale at the bottom, but at the top, it was fine.” Who notices strata in iced tea?)
There is a mini food renaissance happening among gas stations. In rural Alamance County, N.C., the Saxapahaw General Store is a working Shell station with a chef, sit-down dinner service and a menu that includes Cane Creek pork belly and pumpkin ravioli.
In Oxford, Miss., home of the yearly Southern Foodways Symposium, there are gas stations with Thai, Indian and African food counters, and the best barbecue is alleged to be at a gas station called B’s.
Wright Thompson, a sportswriter for ESPN’s magazine and Web site, is a gas-station aficionado who lives in Oxford. He’s on the road roughly 25 weeks a year, When he heads to the airport in Memphis, Tenn., he leaves time to stop outside Oxford at a place with great sausage and biscuits.
“That place is covered in hunters and farmers. I plan on getting my gas there every time I leave.”
Thompson has rules for sizing up gas stations.
First, “I want somebody’s grandmama in the back frying up food,” he said. And second: “The shinier the sign, the worse the chicken. It’s one of those E-equals-MC-squared things.”
The journey begins
We started our trek where it began, at the Shell Quik Shoppe, 1500 Eastway Drive, one of a half-dozen Quik Shoppes owned by Spivey Enterprises. But since we had a long day, we started too early. The steam tables were still filled with breakfast food and the chicken wouldn’t be out for a half-hour.
“The bacon looks good,” Hartness said hopefully. Bacon always looks good, I reminded him. We were all hungry, though, so I picked up a chicken tamale, Schwab opted for broccoli casserole that had just come out, and Hartness settled on three chicken wings. “Gotta pace myself,” he said.
The broccoli casserole turned out to be the winner. “Good and frugal use of the stems,” Schwab mused, poking with her fork. “Not frozen-chopped broccoli. Somebody actually cut this up.”
But Hartness thought his wings were high-priced at $2.50. “That’s too much for three flappers,” he said. “I need at least a drummette.”
We moved on to Quik Shoppe at 201 East Blvd., also Spivey-owned and a longtime favorite among gas-station fans. The chicken was just coming up, so hot the skin had split. We loaded up and spread out on the trunk of the car.
The chicken pieces were huge, particularly a breast that Hartness swore came from a velociraptor. It was moist and cooked through, but while I categorized the crust as “good and greasy,” Hartness and Schwab worried it was a little too greasy.
“I should not feel like I need to wash my hands,” Hartness said. Still, it was right in line with the Eastway store: Plenty of crust and generous portions.
Wedges and casseroles
We branched out from Shell to BP with Osei Food & Beverage, 9001 Nations Ford Road. This was the find of the day for side dishes: Crispy fried okra that was good and salty, very cheesy broccoli casserole and excellent potato wedges.
Potato wedges are the common denominator of gas-station food. Every place has them, and every fan calls them something different: Wedges, boats, logs, sticks.
Hartness’ theory is that the skinniest ones are the best, because they cook all the way through and give the highest ratio of crust to potato.
Osei’s were all skinny, and they didn’t have to be breaded to be crusty.
The chicken got a mixed review: The crust had big flecks of black pepper, which was great. But while the wing we tried was excellent, a thigh was clearly off, with a strangely rubbery texture. It was just one piece, but it was an example of the kind of experience you fear when you venture into a gas station for eats.
By the way, inspection scores on all the places we visited were 93 or higher.
At Nichols, 9245 Wilkinson Blvd., part of a Gaston County-based chain, we branched out from fried chicken to chicken wings. And very nice wings they turned out to be. They’re called hot wings, but they’re really fried wings with hot sauce on the side, a touch that keeps them from getting soggy.
Our final stop was Akita Express Japanese Grill in Belmont. We debated whether it qualified as gas-station food, because the take-out-only restaurant has a separate entrance from the convenience store. But there are pumps right out front, and you can’t turn down a chance to get Hibachi Steak With Mushrooms while you fill your tank.
“There’s something that’s not brown,” Schwab rejoiced.
For $6.95, we got a big pile of rice, quartered mushrooms and beef chunks cooked on a griddle and served with a scattering of “sweet carrots,” which turned out to be very sweet. “Those carrots have been yammed,” Hartness declared.
Filling two needs
So what did we learn about dining a la quick-mart? First, you hardly ever encounter tables, so prepare to eat in your car or on it. Ambience depends on whose car stereo is loudest.
Next, timing matters. A place can have great fried chicken at lunch, but at 3 in the afternoon you may experience lateness, not greatness. Pay attention to traffic patterns, like shift change at a place near a factory.
For your trouble, though, you will experience what sportswriter Wright Thompson celebrates as one of the great working-class realities. Working people need filling food fast, they appreciate a good value and they tend to stick with places that give them both.
He doesn’t understand why anyone would question getting good food where you get your 30-weight. After all, truck stops are legendary for their food, and truck stops are just very big gas stations.
“You need gas and you need food,” he said. “I don’t know why you don’t marry them together.”