When on the hunt for regional food, it’s especially fun to discover eateries that stretch the definition of a restaurant. We learned to appreciate such culinary and cognitive dissonance early in our travel career when we came across delicious, wild-caught catfish along the White River in Arkansas at a fish-camp diner that doubled as an upholstery shop. We have since eaten excellent bacon cheeseburgers at the Los Angeles Police Revolver and Athletic Club Cafe, angelic meringue pie at the Blanco Bowling Club in Texas, and memorable fish & chips from a landlocked fishing boat named Bowpicker in Astoria, Oregon.
Perhaps the richest genre of unusually situated excellent food is what’s served in functioning gas stations, like the P&H Truck Stop in Vermont (for freshly baked bread) and Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City (for great BBQ), as well as former gas stations like Taco Garage in San Antonio and Fishnet Seafood outside of Charleston. What nearly all the great gas station restaurants share is that each sports a one-of-a-kind personality with character to spare in the form of quirky décor and genuine nostalgia.
There is one big exception to the colorful gas station with excellent food model: the gas stations found in and around Charlottesville, Virginia. Some of the finest fried chicken we’ve found in the Mid-South is served in the most boring, cookie-cutter chain businesses that look just like a thousand other Citgos, Valeros, and BPs.
A first glance inside the Brownsville Shell station in the town of Crozet does nothing to raise one’s hopes of finding anything other than beef sticks, fried pork rinds, energy drinks, and horrid plastic-wrapped honey buns. It looks like a stereotypical convenience store, shelves crowded with garishly packaged junk food. As for dining facilities, there is one small, glass-top table with two wire-backed chairs opposite an enormous wall cooler filled with a thousand brands of beer. The store may look ho-hum, but it smells fantastic. Off to one corner of the big room, beyond the cash register, is a small food-prep area where chicken is fried, sending a seductive aroma through the aisles.
Nobody at Brownsville Shell was willing to reveal anything about their recipe, but we can tell you that the red-gold crust, fairly glowing with spice, is egg-wash thin, not batter-thick; and as our teeth made it crack and break, we knew instantly that we were in the presence of world-class chicken. Curiously, even the dark meat does not ooze rivers of juice when you bite it. All its lusciousness is held within the meat itself, making each bite deliriously succulent. There are other items on the Brownsville menu, and we do have a soft spot for the chicken broccoli casserole, made with tender noodles and gooped with cheese—a well-balanced home-ec classic from the mid 20th century—but the fried chicken is what makes this place a must.
Down the road in Charlottesville, the side dishes at Preston Avenue Shell, another seemingly humdrum gas station mini mart, are terrific. Stewed apples, dusted with cinnamon, are an ideal companion to spicy food. The collard greens are soft and clumpy, laced with plentiful slivers of pork that yield all their porky savor to the leaves that embrace them, making for collards that are as indulgent as a green vegetable can be. The chicken, fried in impeccably fresh peanut oil, is enveloped in a salty skin that peels away in bacon-rich strips.
The best gas station fried chicken we found is at an Exxon Mobil station south of the city along Route 29 in Lovingston. A foodservice area known as The Chicken Coop is off to one side, accessible via a walk-up window out on the asphalt where the gas pumps are, or from inside the convenience store, which is known as the Nelson Food Mart. Place your order and you are given a little tab of paper with the price marked on it. (A three-piece dinner with slaw, roll, and fried potato wedges runs $5.59.) Take the paper to the cash register, where you wait in line with people buying lotto tickets and cigarettes and paying for their gas. Back at the Coop, food is presented on heavy cardboard plates. This chicken features a thin, abundant crust with so many facets and angles you want to call it rococo. It is judiciously salted with a toasty herbal twist—more about comfort than culinary pyrotechnics.
We ooed and ahhed so loudly as we savored The Chicken Coop’s chicken that a lone eater in workman’s coveralls at a nearby table asked if this was our first visit. We said it was and expressed our wonder at just how amazingly good the fried chicken is in so many of the area’s gas stations. He nodded in knowing agreement, then gestured out to cars passing on the highway, proclaiming, “People out there, they drive right by without a clue. They have no idea what they’re missing.”
Brownsville Shell: 5995 Rockfish Gap Turnpike, Crozet, VA. 434-823-5251; The Chicken Coop: 40 Front St., Lovingston, VA. 434-263-7818; Preston Avenue Shell: 601 Preston Ave., Charlottesville, VA. 434-296-2004