On average, Americans spend 100 hours a year in their cars and some people do their dining behind the wheel. Add to that the rising cost of real estate in Central Virginia, and it’s easy to see why some restauranteurs are now offering gourmet fare and quality comfort food at gas stations.
If you drive by Charlottesville’s Bellair Market with its gas pumps out front, you might expect to find typical road food inside – beef jerky and chips, maybe some soggy sandwiches or withered weenies on a rolling grill. In fact the place offers freshly-made sandwiches -- like the Jefferson with maple turkey and cranberry relish, the Whitehall with brie and roasted red peppers or the Earlysville with ham, smoked gouda and herb mayo on sourdough.
12 miles down the road, in Crozet, it’s the Citgo that’s ordering up with a taste of Tex-Mex.
“We have carnitas, empanadas which are very popular, tacos, burritos, tortas, chicken," says chef Alicia Chavez. "Dad makes an awesome barbeque sauce,” she adds.
Chavez grew up in Western Albemarle County, but her immigrant Dad taught her traditional cooking techniques from Mexico. Now, she serves meals to the men who trim fruit trees and vineyards in the area, to construction workers homesick for something hot.
“Dad grows most of the peppers and stuff like that in his garden," she says. "The people who live around the area when they have peppers they’ll come bring them to us. If they’re too hot for them, they’ll bring them to us.”
At Innsbrook's Market Cafe in Henrico County the menu is equally exotic featuring favorites from South India served in the traditional Thali style. Spicy curries, tika masalas and other mains are served on a metal tray with rice, vegetables, yogurt and bread.
For Sethu Ramam it’s a taste of home.
“They serve a chicken biryani and mutton biryani, and during the weekends they have the Indian breakfast which is really good,” he says.
And Sasi Ratha advises fellow diners to leave room for dessert.
This is a mango pudding," she says, holding a sweet, creamy bowl. " It’s good!"
At nearby Horizon Foods, Southern American food is on the menu – fried fish, crab cakes and bologna sandwiches for just $2.99, and for $3.99 you can get a box of gizzards.
“It’s a chicken stomach," explains owner Shabir Kaba. " It’s good if you put some hot sauce on it. We cook it to order so they get it fresh. We sell three to four cases a week.”
And how many gizzards would that be?
“Plenty!” Kaba concludes.
He notes, however, that Horizon is best known for its fried chicken, with some groups ordering 500 pieces at a time. Today, Virginia Atkins has stopped with her 5-year-old great granddaughter, Hannah Grace Beasley, to pick up a celebratory lunch after kindergarten graduation.
“Our church uses it, when we have family feasts we use it, and it’s the best around,” Atkins says.
“It’s really crunchy. That’s what I love about it,” Beasley adds.
Of course no foodie meal would be complete without a craft beer or two. The Aw Shucks Country Store in Glen Allen rotates 16 varieties on tap, beer flights and growlers to accompany hand-tossed pizzas, fried pickles, barbeque, burgers and a breakfast of creamed chipped beef on biscuits with a side of fried apples.