BY BRIAN S. POWERS
There is a curious phenomenon among fathers of a certain age that roughly corresponds with the desire to make terrible puns and a complete ambivalence about wearing dark socks with shorts in public, and that is a predilection for food that can be obtained with a minimum of effort, preferably whilst also purchasing gasoline, a newspaper, and assorted 2-for-1 candy bars. At first I thought that this strange condition might be limited to my own father, who always seemed to know which gas station in town had the best pepperoni rolls or frozen yogurt bar. It was no surprise, then, when I recently found myself becoming a regular at a local service station on my daily commute. It only became alarming when the employees started anticipating my arrival with my “usual” order.
It seems that a love of gas station food and a willingness to eat anything that is served under heat lamps or on a roller grill is not merely a facet of my own genetics, but very possibly an emerging trait of middle-to-late stage fatherhood universally. Dads love gas station food, and it’s high time we embraced the culinary possibility inherent in food that can purchased hot and ready with a lottery ticket. To those ends, assembled below is a guide to the proper selection and consumption of local convenience store cuisine, tackling the gamut from actual homemade food down to the last crumbs from a stale Tornado. You should probably pop a couple Rolaids now.
Convenience Cuisine: Not Just Day Old Hot Dogs Anymore
The first stop in our search for service station sustenance is at Lexington-area locations that still provide what even the most discriminating non-father would consider to be pretty decent food.
Marathon Gas Versailles Food Mart – 200 Lexington Street, Versailles
Any day begins with a hearty breakfast, and while my own father swears by the restorative powers of Speedway breakfast pizza, one of the better breakfasts locally is found at the Marathon Gas Versailles Food Mart. There are multiple breakfast options that involve biscuits, and all of them seem to take construction cues from the Carnegie Deli; each biscuit sandwich contains a nearly unreasonable amount of meat. Piles of country ham and slices of pork tenderloin adorn these biscuits, but the crown jewel may be that compilation American breakfast in handheld form, the bacon, egg and cheese biscuit.
For starters, the biscuit is a fine example of home cooking – a bit crumbly, but holds together reasonably well and tastes fresh, if a little dense. The egg is an actual by-God egg fried the standard way, which provides an excellent flavor and texture, especially with a slice of American cheese melting against it. Then there’s the bacon. Oh, the bacon. There is an excessive amount of bacon on this biscuit, yet it isn’t overwhelming, and the bacon is cooked just to the point of crispness, exactly at the spot between rubbery and brittle. At less than $2.50 for a fully-loaded biscuit, this item isn’t just good for gas station food, it’s a true contender against other fast food breakfast items. Skip the fast food chains for this biscuit and you can add a cold Ski and a stick of bison jerky alongside it with a copy of USA Today. Stop by for lunch and you can get whatever variety of home cooking they have that particular day, which runs anywhere from chicken-fried whatever to lamb chops.
Double Kwik BP Convenience Store – 4000 Catnip Hill Road, Nicholasville
If you want the kind of lunch where you spend the rest of the afternoon at work praying you don’t get caught nodding off, the Nicholasville Double Kwik is tailor-made to dump some serious carb-loading on you. The Double Kwik has the distinction of two different in-store restaurants, a quick grill for hamburgers and similar items, and a more involved service for comfort food. An entree with two sides and a roll will set you back $6.49, but it’s hard to find an original recipe of chicken at a gas station that is both (a) truly delicious, and (b) not served up by one of the leading gas station chicken franchises. Complement that with sauteed red skin potatoes and creamy mac’n’cheese and you’ve got a formidable meal, bonus points for the flat fried cornbread.
Looking back, I made two mistakes – one was making two trips to fill up my drink bucket with delightfully sweet tea, and the other was adding an order of peach cobbler after the fact. It’s never a good feeling to want to unbutton your pants at work after a meal like that, but it’s especially painful when your boss notices the large patch of peach cobbler on your shirt because you hurriedly scarfed it down in the car while racing back to work. I both curse and commend the Double Kwik; my Kentucky grandmother would have been proud to serve that meal. I’ll branch out and try the meatloaf next time.
Joe’s Mini Food Mart – 705 E. Loudon, Lexington (near Winchester Road)
Can we start by acknowledging the massive mural of Jimi Hendrix on the adjacent building adds a certain panache to Joe’s that all other gas stations lack? It took me a minute to find the food counter at Joe’s – it’s tucked back in the far corner opposite the main door, so it’s hidden behind racks of staples such as potato chips and motor oil. While Joe’s serves the gas station staple of Broaster chicken, Joe’s uses it a gateway – as many do – to serve other homestyle food alongside the branded chicken, much to its advantage. The mini food service area is branded as “Mrs. Joe’s Kitchen” on a hand-written menu sign for that extra “awwww” factor. As much as I was looking forward to trying out either the pimento cheese sandwich or BLT on the menu, my innate desire to eat every piece of warm chicken on the planet won out once I saw the baked chicken special. After making the purveyors of chicken and sides swear a blood oath that the mashed potatoes were not made from a box of instant flakes, I walked out with a box of chicken, said potatoes and green beans with a roll for $6.99.
If there is juicier or more delicious baked chicken in central Kentucky, I don’t want to have a standard set that high, as all other chicken would be a disappointment. The mashed potatoes were as promised, but the green beans were the side to beat – flavorful and firm, not overcooked and mushy. My only complaints were the banal roll that accompanied the meal and the failure to list the price of a bottle of Ale 8 to soothe the cheapskate in me before purchasing. Joe’s (and Mrs. Joe’s) add a solid entry in the pantheon of gas station cuisine by serving up delicious, simple food alongside supplying unleaded and Skoal.
(Full disclosure: I once lost a Speedy Rewards card that had 12,243 points on it, which practically makes me a shareholder.)
Custom now dictates that we turn to less firm culinary ground – namely, the unholy real estate held by the roller grill in the chain gas station. I have been known to sample the occasional hot dog or Polish sausage, which often transforms into a hollow meat tube of regret after the fact, but our nation’s fathers are eating those things, so I must give them equal treatment.
The two top contenders locally are Thornton’s and Speedway, with multiple locations serving up countless tubes of withered mystery meat alongside Tornados, the food equivalent of something that sounds good in theory but is terrible in practice, like a Chevy Chase talk show (ask your parents). I’ll give the ending away early – Thornton’s takes it in a walk.
Thornton’s has really upped the roller grill game, using Johnsonville-branded sausages and providing a small toppings bar. I purchased one of the BBQ Bourbon Sausages, added some shredded cheese and spicy mustard before making the Sign of the Cross and taking a solid bite. The results were…not awful. It was actually a pretty delicious and flavorful sausage, which puts it light years ahead of the other shriveled protein sticks marketed to drunk college students and hungry uncles. I did bristle at the fact that adding cheese or chili would slap another $0.30 on top of my $1.69, as I have come to expect these items as part of my birthright.
Speedway set me straight, however, by reminding me that just because chili and cheese are free doesn’t mean they’re not going to make you instantly regret every decision that led to you putting them on your Polish sausage. Advantage: Thornton’s. While buns from both locations came out stale from the plastic wrap, the location of the Speedway buns was far more confusing. This was not the first time I inadvertently pulled out a drawer marked “EMPLOYEES ONLY – HOT! DO NOT OPEN!” and stared at a pan of steaming water for a full twenty seconds before noticing the actual buns were in a different drawer. Speedway wins the price war at $1.59, but a mediocre sausage covered in chili and sadness just couldn’t compete.
While it may be unfathomable to some, it is a near-universal certainty that gas station food has claimed the dad demographic irrevocably. It is time for fathers everywhere to stand and proudly proclaim your preference for the roller grill, or maybe that one place that services those spicy potato wedges and burritos. Own it, Dads of America. May your socks be dark, your taste in music questionable, and your chicken tenders Broasted.
This article also appears on page 7 of the June 2017 printed edition of the Hamburg Journal.
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