When I was a kid, I lived down the block from a gas station. It smelled like used oil and new tires, and the cars that entered the station rang the bell every time they rolled over those brown hoses, making a “ding-ding, ding-ding” sound. I used to ride my bike there and load up on gumballs, Baby Ruths and Hershey’s bars from various candy machines.
I made this excursion every time I felt the merry jingle of silver coins in my pocket. It was a cheap thrill, in at least a few senses.
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.
Even though Zaidi has gone to great lengths to sort of airbrush the service station out of the picture, she knows her arrangement with Liberty is the very thing that allows her to thrive. She says her rent is low and her kitchen is equipped with little storage space, so the cooks have the budget to buy fresh ingredients and the need to move them fast, at a fair price. This rings true, but it’s still hard to accept without reservation. I was, for example, beyond skeptical when the waiter recommended the mixed seafood with basil for $16.95. What appeared was a plate brimming with fresh scallops, mussels, shrimp and carved squid, each piece supported with a backing orchestra of flavor, from Thai basil or crunchy lengths of green beans.
I also expected the appetizers to be frozen, pre-made packages, each cooked to order. They’re not. One example: The comically coined shrimp “bikini” are actually fresh crustaceans straight-jacketed in a fried wrapper, their nutty flavor pairing well with a trio of dipping sauces. I was equally surprised at the fish-sauce punch of tom kha kai, which added a sly pungency to the sweet and sour soup. (The tom yum kai, by contrast, was essentially a sour bomb.)
The key to eating well here is to know the heat index: One star equals mild, four hovers around smelting-furnace range. I found two stars an acceptable burn. It lit a small fire under the peanut creaminess of the chicken panang curry, and it generated a wicked little lip sting with the aforementioned seafood dish. Then again, one of the best plates I sampled, the sizzling Bangkok beef, radiated more of a black-pepper heat, balanced by its rich, savory sauce poured from — wait for it — a gravy boat.
Thai Pan will adopt more refinements in the near future. Zaidi plans to go where few, if any, gas-station restaurants have gone before: certified organic, top to bottom, from meat to vegetables. Which immediately set off my internal alarm. Will the shift push Thai Pan beyond my $20 limit?
“No, we will never increase that much,” Zaidi reassured me.
2 Harrison St. SE, Leesburg.
703-777-9487. www.thethaipan.com .
Hours: Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturday noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday noon to 9 p.m.
Prices: Entrees, $9.75-$16.95.