According to the rules of the road, you’re never supposed to eat at the same place you gas up your car — unless you like dried-up doughnuts, withered hot dogs or nuked burritos. Luckily for hungry drivers, some local entrepreneurs are taking pump-side cuisine to a super-premium level, opening boutique restaurants inside gas stations. “At first, I thought it would be crazy to serve good food in that setting,” admits Fast Gourmet co-owner Manuel Olivera. “But then I realized that people would remember that forever.” One stop at these gastro stations and you’ll rethink the rules.
Just a few years ago, Rodrigo Albarran-Torres lost his job as a commercial pilot because of the recession. Having worked in restaurants growing up, he brainstormed with his father, a veteran of the hospitality industry, trying to land on a new career. When they heard that a local Shell station was looking to open an eatery on its premises, Albarran-Torres jumped at the opportunity. “It actually worked out great,” the chef-owner says. “Instead of being unemployed, I had a new job and a new business.” He designed a menu full of street snacks known as antojitos, inspired by his childhood in Mexico City. “It’s food that you’ll find on the streets and in the markets,” he says. Refuel with an order of three tacos ($6) with creative and classic fillings, such as barbacoa (lamb), carne asada (thin-sliced steak), lengua (beef tongue) or cueritos (fried pork rinds).
FYI: Spiky-haired Guy Fieri recently stopped by to film an episode of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” that will air this spring.
R&R Taqueria, 7894 Washington Blvd., Elkridge, Md.; 410-799-0001.
The Thai Pan
The regulars at this Leesburg, Va., favorite simply call it “Gas Station Thai.” Since 2008, the restaurant has been surprising motorists who were expecting only to fill up their tanks. “When I came for a job interview, I couldn’t believe it was actually a restaurant,” says manager Sumitra Singhavanurat. “It just doesn’t look like one from the outside.” Those who venture inside are greeted by a cozy space and an impressive menu. Choose from Far Eastern favorites such as crispy duck stir-fried with hot peppers, chili-garlic sauce and basil ($17); or Bangkok Beef sautéed with scallion, onion and ginger in a brown butter sauce ($14.95). If you want a little heat in your belly when you drive off, just ask for your dish to be cooked “Thai hot.”
FYI: The roadside restaurant has a nice selection of vinos and brews, including a Thai favorite, Singha beer.
The Thai Pan, 2 Harrison St., Leesburg, Va.; 703-777-9487.
When you pull up at the W Express gas station in the U Street corridor, you hear Fast Gourmet before you see it. The garage-turned-eatery blasts the rock — Creedence Clearwater Revival,
Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, you name it. “We didn’t have a sign when we first opened,” Olivera explains. “The music was so people would want to know what was going on inside.” It turns out that there’s a lot happening, courtesy of Olivera’s brother and business partner, chef Juan “Nacho” Olivera. The Uruguayan cook turns out an impressive array of sandwiches, including a hearty Black Angus beef and chorizo meatball sub ($8.50); a Cuban with pork butt and ham ($8.50); and the house specialty, the Chovito ($13), which is piled high with shaved tenderloin, mozzarella, hard-boiled eggs and much more. “We want it to be an international comfort food menu,” Olivera says. “Because this neighborhood is full of a lot of different cultures.”
FYI: To-go containers and utensils at this eco-friendly spot are made from compostable cornstarch, and the fryer oil is recycled into biofuel.
Fast Gourmet, 1400 W St. NW; 202-448-9217.
Easy Access: Drive-Thru Delights
You don’t need to settle for a McFlurry or KFC’s chocolate chip cake when you’re on the go. Enjoy a tastier treat without ever leaving the car at these delicious drive-thrus.
Cheesecake Heaven (10344 Fairfax Blvd., Fairfax; 703-218-4114)
Nine decadent cheesecakes vie for your attention here — including flavors such as Oreo-crusted peanut butter, and espresso-boosted pumpkin latte.
Moo Thru (11402 James Madison Hwy., Remington, Va.;540-439-6455)
Using milk from their own grass-fed cows, this boutique ice creamery handcrafts an ever-changing array of flavors, such as gingersnap, blackberry and cake batter.
Java Divas (8355 Ritchie Hwy., Pasadena, Md.;410-353-8373)
Here motorists enjoy caffeine-spiked frozen frappes — like the Irish Cream and amaretto swirled Napoleon — made by scantily clad barista babes.