Fast Gourmet fills ’em up

May 26, 2011

In the back of a gritty-looking gas station at 14th and W streets NW, unleaded regular goes for $3.94 a gallon and the yellowfin tuna steak — dressed with red onions, raisins and caper mayonnaise and tucked into a warm homemade brioche — will set you back $8.50.

Diners enter Fast Gourmet through a squat building that’s just past the petrol pumps and under a Lowest Price gas billboard. Inside, on the left, is a booth encased in bulletproof plexiglass, where an attendant suffers endless ennui ringing up gas purchases and selling beef jerky, antifreeze and tobacco chew.

Johnny Cash rumbles from a sound system. You look to see where it’s coming from, and you see it: a surprisingly sophisticated eatery whose sleek black tables are decorated with bamboo-filled vases. Working the grill is 32-year-old Juan Olivera, known as “Nacho,” the 300-pound tattooed son of a retired Uruguayan diplomat. Nacho trained as a chef in Italy and France, studying the innovations of Paul Bocuse, a father of French nouvelle cuisine.

Nacho and his brother, Manuel, 23, are pioneers of a sort, serving classy food in a venue where customers would normally buy gum or Gatorade. There’s an open kitchen, a long grill sizzling with salty aromas, the smell of bechamel and four kinds of bread baking.

Gastronomy, it seems, can happen just about anywhere. In the District, that has meant Korean barbecue and lobster rolls sold from food trucks and honey-crusted goat cheese sold at farmers markets. Consider it the democratization of food culture, the raising of the expectations of eaters everywhere. In that context, why not gourmet-grade sandwiches served at a gas station?

“The city is back and ready for this. Bocuse’s work informs every sandwich I make,” says Nacho, who wears a chef’s tunic over a World Cup soccer jersey and doesn’t seem to find it odd that an internationally renowned Michelin-starred chef is setting the standard for gas station cuisine.

Unconventional space

With rents sky-high along the U Street corridor — one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city — the Olivera brothers considered the unconventional rental space in the back of the gas station and thought, “Why not?”

They weren’t financially ready to rent an entire restaurant. By pooling their funds — and with help from a business partner, Colombian American Lina Chovil, 25, and their parents, who retired to Uruguay — they were able to lease the space from Lowest Price, a chain with stations across the mid-Atlantic, often in neighborhoods that are struggling economically.

The deal for the space included managing the gas station, which means the brothers sell the usual gas station fare as well. They said they fought with the city for more than a year to get the permits. They said they were told they would never get a liquor license. It is, after all, a gas station.

Opened at the end of October, the business, Manuel says, is turning a small profit, which is unusual so soon in the restaurant business.

“The moment of the neighborhood was right to put a gourmet place in what seemed like a dive gas station,” Nacho says. “Plus, the recession helped us. Gas prices were so high that people had to eat cheaper. So, why not where they buy gas?”

The brothers and Chovil sometimes wonder whether Fast Gourmet might make the perfect reality show.

“This place draws a crazy combination of people, man,” Chovil says.

On a recent Thursday night, there’s a sleep-deprived Nigerian cab driver pacing as he waits for his coffee and Angus burger, and goths share cones of sweet-potato string fries dusted with cinnamon and sugar after an evening at the nearby 9:30 Club. Fast Gourmet’s employees say State Department workers are some of their most frequent customers, and, sure enough, several arrive as if on cue, dressed in blue blazers, BlackBerrys stuck to their palms. While they answer e-mails, they sip Boylan black cherry soda and curiously inspect the chocolate-covered bacon and alfajores, South American cookies filled with dulce de leche.

Fast Gourmet’s neighbor is the 30-year-old Martha’s Table, a food and clothing center for homeless and low-income children and a remnant from the bad old days when 14th Street was a place to score a prostitute and crack, not a $13 chivito sandwich.

Across the street is a gleaming new CVS, half-a-million-dollar-and-rising condominiums and the trendy restaurant Eatonville, where young professionals in office clothes sip mint juleps and graze on crab, fried green tomatoes and hush puppies under murals depicting Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston.

“The city is where everyone wants to live now. If D.C. had 50 more creative places like this — great food in a gas station — then this would be a really great place to be. It would be, well, Brooklyn,” says Blair Ruble, a Washington historian and chronicler of U Street, as he tucks into a juicy Peruvian-chicken lunch.

Ruble talks about the significance of Fast Gourmet being in a gas station, a symbol of the open road and of the dated suburban American dream. The Washington area has the second-highest subway ridership in the country, after New York. And this Lowest Price station has a new identity: It’s a way station that’s now a destination.

‘I wish I had four stomachs’

When the Oliveras came to Washington in 2003, their father, Nelson Olivera, was the naval attache at the Uruguayan Embassy. Manuel went to Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, but Nacho, who says he was always a foodie, was 23. He took off for Ecully, France, outside Lyon, where he studied at the Institut Paul Bocuse.

While he was there, some of his classmates decided to pursue further training in Italy. Nacho followed and cooked in well-respected restaurants in the hills of Tuscany before returning to the District and finding work in neighborhood places such as L’Appetito Ristorante on MacArthur Boulevard.

The brothers live together, in Montgomery Village, which is about an hour’s drive from their restaurant. But they work so much and spend so much on gas — even at Lowest Price — that they dream of living in a condo on 14th Street.

“Right now, we can’t afford the rent, which is, like, $3,000 for a two-bedroom,” Manuel says, as he rings up a customer. “Maybe soon.”

One afternoon, Nacho’s friend Pino Panetta comes by to be coaxed off his diet so he can put away Nacho’s classic chivito, the national sandwich of Uruguay. It takes shape quickly under Nacho’s knife — an epic, six-inch tower of layered beef tenderloin, black forest ham, bacon, mushrooms, melted mozzarella, a fried egg, lettuce, tomato and a house sauce of red peppers, onion and garlic in olive oil, all pressed and heated.

Panetta is from Naples, Italy, and met Nacho in the District. “In Italy, our highways have good Italian products, good preparations so you can fix a wonderful sandwich,” he says. Is that where Nacho and Manuel got the idea?

“Well, we were looking for space. We heard this place was available. We thought how crazy would it be to have really fantastic food in a gas station,” says Manuel, who is the operation’s marketing guru and manager.

Fast Gourmet doesn’t advertise, but Manuel started a Fast Gourmet Facebook page and Twitter account. Buzz about the brothers went viral. Many customers reported first hearing about it on Facebook, where their apartment buildings have pages. Fans of Yelp, an online food site, have given it 41 / 2 stars. One reviewer wrote online: “I wish I had four stomachs. I am left to work my way through the menu.”

Manuel tapped a designer friend to give the place a cooler look, “kind of like Zen Asian meets edgy urban gas station.”

“We wanted to be ironic: Like, the food smells are so good that they overpower the gas smell,” Manuel says between offering sandwich suggestions to a line of customers. “We wanted it to be classy, so we redid the bathrooms. They were in bad shape, man. Ugly. I mean, this corner used to be, like, a gangster spot.”

The vibe at Fast Gourmet

Bopping down the street and into Fast Gourmet for lunch on a recent Thursday was a Peruvian building contractor, a female radio employee holding a Prada handbag and a bicyclist with an “I heart biking” T-shirt and bluebirds and a forest inked onto her arms. She runs a dog-walking business and lives in Shaw.

“Que pasa?” an older woman greets Manuel in Spanish as she orders an Argentine spinach pie.

Taking this in from behind the plexiglass is Yonas Tekeste, an Eritrean who was granted political asylum and works the front of the gas station. He was a teacher in Eritrea, thrown into jail for his political beliefs; he fled, eventually landing in the District.

Selling Slim Jims and gas isn’t that exciting for him. But he likes the city, its international vibe and its wealthy young African crowd.

The Olivera brothers recently noted that Tekeste’s English is perfect and that he has a nice way with customers. They’re promoting him to work on the gourmet side of the station.

“You always see a boyfriend pulling his girlfriend in, and she’s complaining,” Tekeste says with a laugh. “The boyfriends always explain, ‘No, we are not so broke that we have to eat in a gas station. We want to eat here!’ Isn’t America interesting?”

Eating nearby is Kamyl Bazbaz, 25, a native New Yorker who works for the State Department and loves to complain about the lack of choices in Washington’s evening dining scene. He calls it “absurd” how often he eats at Fast Gourmet. Sometimes, he says, he eats there to rectify a previously disappointing meal elsewhere.

“The Milanese is out of control. It’s pounded New York strip steak!” he says, diving into the sandwich. “The meatball is mixed with chorizo and sausage. I mean, really?”

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