Getting to know gas stations makes a flat road come alive
Boudin is just the beginning of invigorating local delicacies you can find along the road. The trouble, as you fly past at 70 miles per hour, is knowing where to go. Google will tell you gas prices and crowd-sources reviews too, which are helpful if you’re looking for clean bathrooms or if you like to read vengeful accounts of minor frustrations (“The sign said OPEN but the door was locked”: one star out of five). The Gas Station Gourmet blog is a better bet for separating the wheat from the chaff, and finding where that wheat is shaped into fresh po-boy bread and stuffed with fried shrimp. “I counted twenty-four shrimp on my six-inch sandwich,” writes the GSG himself, Al Hebert, reviewing the Bourbon St. Deli in Abbeville. (No star system, but we must assume it’s the equivalent of a five.) He adds, “The onion rings are homemade.”
An Abbeville native, Hebert works as an entertainment reporter at NEWS15 Today. He started his blog more than a decade ago after the aromas of a Crowley gas station prompted happy incredulity. “Could they be cooking in here?” he asked his companion. He soon found that, especially in south Louisiana, home-cooked fare isn’t a stretch for most individually owned gas stations—and it isn’t the act of altruism I imagined it to be either. “It’s all about competition,” Hebert told me in a recent interview. “The profit margins on gas are small. They’ve got to set themselves apart.” The places that do best are tuned into the local population, suiting local palates (often with traditional family recipes) and serving as a hub for community news and chatter too. Hebert remembered asking one station owner if she worried about the large corporate station under construction down the road from her. “They can’t touch me,” she laughed. “This town needs me.”
Hebert’s coverage now extends nationwide, and he even contributes a monthly column to a magazine published by NACS (National Association for Convenience Stores). In recent years, NACS has sponsored a 2,500-mile summer road trip for Hebert and Frank Beard, whose company GasBuddy offers gas-price data through apps and websites. Hebert can now rave knowledgeably about the white-linen Italian restaurant in an Idaho gas station and the blue Chevron in Noonday, Texas (population 777), where you can order Cornish game hen. But he swears up and down that the fare is still best in Louisiana, where the blend of hungry and opinionated people shapes outstanding menus like that of College Junction Mudbugs in Eunice, where to keep his customer base happy, owner Steve Bollich barbecues daily and has his hamburger buns baked in town. “It’s that special touch,” said Hebert.
The downside of gourmet surprises along the road is you might not have the time or stomach room to enjoy them immediately. When I stopped at the Fish Shack, just off I-12’s Exit 47 (“In God’s Country,” according to the sign on the building), I could only grab a take-out menu and plan a visit back with big plans to tackle a platter. At Creamer Deli, at the EZ-Stop on Highland Road in North Baton Rouge, the line forms quickly for Sharmel Lewis’s plate lunches. You might arrive hungry and still miss the seafood-stuffed potato.
And it takes more than one deliberate visit to appreciate the jaw-dropping 149 items on offer at Punjabi Dhaba, the restaurant that barely hides inside a Hammond Shell Station (look for the large decal of the turbaned man on the building’s front; the neighboring and probably unrelated Colonial Inn motel might jog your memory too). It’s all in the name: a dhaba is a roadside restaurant and in India its proximity to a gas station is a given. Truck drivers on the long haul certainly deserve to eat well when they rest, and if people of varying trip length and vehicle size in southeast Louisiana haven’t worked quite so hard as professional truckers, that’s no reason to hide the biryani. Quick descriptions of each item elucidate Punjabi cuisine for the newcomer. The most entrenched Cajun will be comforted to hear shrimp masala explained as “shrimp cooked in tomato and butter gravy,” even if the entrée choice is made no easier by all these tantalizing tidbits. But settle on a protein (I have to recommend the marinated lamb in Shai Korma) and lodge your tolerance for flames upon the tongue with your server. Note that the safest you can go is “Mild Spicy.” Flavor can only be so muted before it’s gone.
Beyond the extensive food offerings and table service, Punjabi Dhaba doesn’t separate itself from other gas stations. Refrigerator cases of Coke products line one wall and on the other, you will find baggies of sunflower seeds and dinner mints. I hear a complaint or two at the cash register about the atmosphere (“My husband and I adore the food, but when are you getting a real restaurant?”) and have to think they’re missing the point. Hebert has encountered the same reticence when asking for recommendations from locals. “We’ve never eaten at gas stations,” shrugged his business associates in Texas.
It’s a fruitful relationship between convenience store cook and customer, for those who care to indulge. “Gas stations are still one of those places where you have human contact,” said Hebert. He sees some places evolving to have open kitchens, encouraging interaction and hopefully helping those persuasive aromas reach the freeway. “It’s a part of Americana that’s coming back.”
Lucie Monk Carter is a food and culture writer based in southeast Louisiana. She looks forward to driverless cars so she can take her Punjabi Dhaba meals to go.