It sounds like an oxymoron: Gas station food.
Sure, the local gas-’n-go may have some microwaveable munchies or pre-packaged sandwiches of dubious vintage, but gas stations don’t usually qualify as tabernacles of culinary excellence.
However, four local service stations defy that conventional wisdom.
Howard Lasky’s Town Grill in Lisbon is truly serendipity dining. Tucked into one side of a Citgo station, the Town Grill retains its crossroads country store atmosphere, with a cappuccino machine alongside a rack of knit caps and toothpaste displayed next to windshield wiper blades. The food, however, is excellent.
Town Grill has an extensive menu and specializes in smoked dishes. Despite the countrified appearance, the smoked salmon and trout are definitely uptown. Lasky has three smokers and uses a combination of apple, cherry, and apricot woods. His pulled pork is a standout, with a solid smoky flavor, served with a unique mustard-based sauce on the side.
In business for four years, Lasky previously worked as a general contractor and ran cross country ski areas. He characterizes his cuisine as “Not bad for gas station food.”
“It was a mess when I took over,” he said. “[But] I saw the potential. I am a businessman and had nothing to do with food, ever. I researched why people go into the restaurant business.”
Town Grill focuses primarily on breakfast and lunch, with special dinners on Thursday nights. Regular customers include both the blue collar and more refined residents of western Howard County. The restaurant offers catering and handles all the food service for Larriland Farms.
Setting the Benchmark
The Sunshine General Store, at the intersection of routes 97 and 650, stands as another rural culinary gem. In the back of a largely defunct Chevron station, this regional favorite is known throughout the area for its “Sunshine burgers,” which are a half-pound delight grilled on a traditional griddle top and served with a choice of standard fixings.
Sunshine burgers set the hamburger benchmark. Made with fresh ground beef from the Mount Airy Meat Locker, they are thick, juicy and have that solid beef flavor. Sunshine serves at least 100 burgers every day, and more on Saturdays.
According to cook Cathy Valcourt, there are reasons why Sunshine’s burgers are so good: “It’s the love. The love, the seasonings and the grill.”
At lunchtime, a constant stream of customers jockey for space on the four tattered barstools at the counter, share seats around two elderly kitchen tables or get their sandwiches to go. The store offers a range of sandwiches and also serves breakfast, featuring platter-sized pancakes and grilling 40 to 50 pounds of bacon every day.
A Taste of New York
For something more continental, try Columbia Waterloo Pizza & Subs, shoe-horned into the Exxon station at the corner of Little Patuxent Parkway and Governor Warfield Parkway in Columbia. Affiliated with Roma’s Pizza & Subs in Columbia and Ellicott City, Columbia Waterloo offers that rarest of gastronomic pleasures — real New York-style pizza.
Forget the Chicago deep-dish imposters or the crowd of local poseurs; this is the real pizza: Thin, crackly crust, rich tomato sauce and just the right amount of cheese that spins out in long threads with each bite.
Expatriates from the Big Apple crowd Columbia Waterloo simply because the pizza reminds them of home. “You don’t have to go to New York anymore to have that New York experience,” said Khalid Balajem from his stand behind the tiny service counter. “We have people who drive all the way up from Bowie just to get our pizza.”
In business for nearly 19 years, Columbia Waterloo also specializes in Philly cheesesteak hoagies and offers a selection of sandwiches, salads and Italian entrees.
Dining With a Star
The Shell station at the intersection of routes 1 and 175 in Jessup is the home of R&R Taqueria, a bastion of authentic Mexican food. Recently featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” R&R is a huge departure from standard Tex-Mex fare.
Five line cooks, under the direction of Executive Chef Rodrigo Albarran-Torres, scramble to serve an almost constant stream of customers, ranging from suits to work-boots, many of them obviously Latino.
Open at 5:30 a.m. to get the breakfast crowd, R&R stays open until 8:30 p.m., serving a gamut of Mexican dishes and specializing in tacos and giant huaraches, a flattened tortilla topped with steak or chicken, layered on creamy cheese and topped with onions, tomatoes, jalapenos, sauces and avocado wedges.
“I started working in restaurants to pay my way through pilot’s school,” said Albarran-Torres. “My dad worked at opening restaurants, and I started working with him when I was 16.”
After getting furloughed from his commercial pilot’s job, he gave serious consideration to opening his own restaurant. “I had always had the idea of opening a restaurant. We prayed about it. My father knew the man who owned the gas station and he wanted a restaurant. It all came together.”
Be sure to try R&R’s tacos with posole, pork mixed with fresh chopped cilantro and traditional spices. Served with the time-honored red and green salsas, the tacos are crisp, full of flavor, and light a delicious fire on the palate. With his father, Albarran-Torres also operates a restaurant in White Marsh Mall.