The Convenience (and Quality) of Gas Station Gourmet
By Billy Ludt
Youngstown undoubtedly boasts an abundance of revered eateries. Drive 15 minutes in any direction, and there will likely be an Italian restaurant, sports bar and a few pizza joints. As spoiled as we are by food selections in this area, there is a niche of cuisine that is utterly neglected by our inability to step out of the restaurant booth and hunt for it: convenience stores and gas stations.
Tucked between two burgeoning bars, Downtown Circle’s fluorescent light spills onto Federal Street and the crowd constantly gathered outside. Inside is an immense stock of staple convenience store amenities: lottery, drinks, alcohol, candy, snacks and even fresh produce. But the real beauty of this unsuspecting oasis is behind its deli and hot foods counter.
Under the heat lamps of Downtown Circle’s hot foods counter are bins full of prepared food, mostly chicken products, accompanied by rice and macaroni and cheese. Adjacent to the hot foods counter is a salad bar. Behind the counter are a deep fryer and a slowly rotating hunk of lamb.
Downtown Circle is known for its gyros, but my palate lacks in regard to vegetables paired with meats, so I purchased a dinner box. My dinner box included several scoops of rice topped with chicken shawarma and macaroni and cheese. Within several bites I was full, and with plenty of food to spare. For (price *plus tax), a dinner box is well worth the cost, seeing as it’s essentially two meals for the price of one.
At the busy intersection of () in Campbell sits, Check-N-Go. Check-N-Go carries some offbeat, international items — at least in regards to convenience store products. But I was here for one purpose: pastelillos.
Pastelillos are Puerto Rican turnovers that replace the typical dessert filling of a turnover with meat–in this case, taco beef. The flaky outer shell of the pastelillos alone was worth the purchase. The meat is placed inside the shell and pressed into a sealed pocket. Working from the rim, taking bites inward, the pastelillo has all the satisfaction of eating a flaky pastry, with the reward of warm
Any person inhabiting northeastern Ohio is aware of all that Sheetz has to offer its patrons, and if they aren’t, they’re at least aware of its existence. I grew up a minute drive from Sheetz, and often found myself there at some point on quiet summer nights, leaving with an MTO in hand. As an institution, it offers a convenience unparalleled by chain gas stations, and there’s a certain unexplainable comfort in the glow of a Sheetz in the distance.
This night, I ended up purchasing some macaroni and cheese bites and two hot dogs. As an avid eater of macaroni and cheese, I have always thought it lacked something to break up its consistency. The answer to this consistency issue is a deep fried coating. The satisfying crunch of the outer casing is followed by that familiar taste of macaroni and cheese made from a box.
Hot dogs at Sheetz are the standard meat log in a bun, without the hassle of lighting the grill, bringing the water to boil or shoving them in the microwave. If a shmelt or shwings—a breakfast sandwich and wings, respectively— is out of the price range, a couple of hot dogs from Sheetz is $1.
The quintessential truck stop/restaurant/shower room/gift shop combo. This stop is for those with stomachs of steel. This is for those people who can eat the figurative cannonball to the stomach, and get up the next day feeling fine. Admittedly, it’s not my first stop for gas station gourmet. But after a long day of traveling, Pilot is a likely option for sustenance.
Pilot may lack by way of prepared foods, but it definitely makes up for its slush drink selection and its variety of roller dogs. No longer is the hot dog the sole occupant of those slow-moving rollers. Now there are egg rolls, tamales, breakfast options and more. Dogs can also be topped with a selection of vegetables and sauces. In a time of need, Pilot is available for a full stomach.