The sweets were inexpensive, their nutrition negligible and they flooded my brain with lovely little chemicals that make kids delirious — and drive parents crazy.
Some four decades later, I’m sort of dumbfounded at how these feelings have come rushing back as I’ve learned about the comestibles available at gas stations. What is it about eating something tasty at the same place you fill your gas tank? Maybe it’s the implied danger of forking down dinner around your car’s own fuel source, a flammable fluid that could engulf us in flames in a nanosecond. Or maybe it’s the same reason many love food trucks: The sheer incongruity of ordering a meal from a source that we equate with mechanical, not culinary, things.
Whatever the reason, filling stations, as colleague Michael S. Rosenwald recently reported, have taken on a different meaning in recent years. You can now grab a pastrami sandwich — piled high with brisket that’s brined, spiced, smoked and sliced into tender strips that go down like candy — at the Corned Beef King built into the back of a soberly lit Exxon station in Olney.
You can bite into a huarache, this glorious wreckage of ingredients crammed onto an oval of griddled masa, at R&R Taqueria, which itself is jammed into a Shell station in Elkridge. You can marvel at what has to be the thinnest chicken breast ever pounded into existence: It’s part of the good-and-gloppy torta Mexicana at the Taco Bar, which abuts the W Express station in Gaithersburg. (The joint’s tacos, overflowing with chopped and charred meats, compare favorably to the much-hyped ones at R&R, too.)
But of all the gas station restaurants where I fueled my body, not my car, the one that impressed me most was way, way out there in Leesburg, requiring an obscene amount of petrol to visit. It’s called Thai Pan, and it’s a first-class cultural mashup. This Thai eatery, owned by a Pakistani, caters to a predominantly white community
that must pull into a Liberty station to eat.
Owner Samana Zaidi took over Thai Pan, she told me, when a friend didn’t have the funds to finish the build-out. That was seven years ago, and her restaurant has become a fixture in Leesburg, where head chef Terawat Sukavanich prepares everything fresh for a menu that runs more than 50 items long.
Thai Pan is not a carryout. It’s a full-service operation, with two-tops and four-tops, an attentive wait staff and a microscopic bar program. There’s even a modest attempt at decor, with knickknacks and floral arrangements to distract from the gas pumps that stand like sentinels outside (sentinels with fingers in their ears?). I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the place often smells like one of those air fresheners you hang on a rearview mirror.