“This may sound weird, but the gas stations are really good,” a co-worker told me when I moved to Charlottesville four years ago. And he was talking about the food. Until then, my gas station dining had been limited to the occasional childhood slushie or a breakfast sandwich from Sheetz, ordered in desperation on a long road trip.
“It’s not like that,” the co-worker assured me. “It’s more like, well, you’ll just have to see.”
So I did. I got my first Yogaville sandwich (Havarti, cheddar, and Swiss with sprouts, lettuce, tomato, and cucumber on French bread) not long after, from my neighborhood Tiger Fuel. In this case “made to order” didn’t mean pressing buttons on a screen, but asking a real person to relay my ticket to a chef in a kitchen that I could see. And the results were delicious.
Live in Charlottesville long enough, and you too will discover that some of the best places to fill your stomach are also where you fill your tank.
Bellair Market’s sandwiches, now available at several Tiger Fuel markets around town, are beloved; in fact, Charlottesville native Mason Hereford was so enamored with the Jefferson (turkey, cheddar, cranberry, lettuce, and herb mayo) that he put his own version on the menu at his New Orleans sandwich shop, Turkey and the Wolf, which Bon Appétit named Best New Restaurant in America in 2017. But there’s plenty more to explore behind the pumps. Here are a few of our favorites:
GoCo Food Mart on Harris
924 Harris St.
Go for: Fried fish on Fridays. (The burgers are also pretty good.)
The unmistakable smell of hot oil and ocean water hits me as soon as I park my car.
“You here for the fish?” the blonde woman asks from behind the counter. It’s 11am on a Friday, and therefore a good guess on her part: The GoCo Food Mart only serves fried fish on Fridays, and I was warned that they often run out by noon.
The Harris Street location’s kitchen is tucked into the corner of a squat brown building behind the Coastal station. Inside, there are two aisles stuffed with the standard convenience store fare, and no place to sit. The woman behind the counter introduces herself as Liz, says she’s worked there for at least 10 years, and that GoCo has been serving fish on Fridays for at least 30 years. She chats with a customer who seems to know her while I eye the contents of the display case: macaroni and cheese, golden potato wedges, coleslaw, and fist-sized burgers wrapped in foil.
“I’m here for the fish,” I confirm.
“Alright,” Liz says with a warm smile as she serves up a catfish filet that’s at least 13 inches long. I’m even more surprised when I find out it’s only $2.99.
This is where I confess that I really love fried fish. I’ve eaten a lot of it in my life, from the seafood halls of Calabash, North Carolina, to concession stands at state fairs and football games. I say this so you know that when I tell you I was impressed with the fish at GoCo, that means it’s exceptionally good.
It’s everything you want fried fish to be: crunchy and salty on the outside and plump and juicy on the inside, with just the right amount of flake. It’s so good I eat the whole thing sitting alone in my car in the parking lot. I consider getting another filet to-go, to use in some tacos at home later that night.
When I ask Liz what makes the fish so special, she demures. “I can’t tell you that,” she says with a flash of a smile. She wasn’t giving up her secrets, but she did offer the following theory while placing a hand over her heart: “Maybe it’s because our cook cooks it with love.”
6098 Rockfish Gap Tpke., Crozet
Go for: Tacos
Set behind a Citgo gas station off Rockfish Gap Turnpike in Crozet is a Mexican market and kitchen that serves those who are looking for authentic Mexican food, or a taste of home. Maria Garcia opened Las Cavanas with her husband, Ignacio Becerra, in 2008. The space is small, as is the menu, and there are only two parking spots. When my fiancé, Justin, and I arrive after the lunch rush, there’s a rich smell of tomatoes and onions simmering in spices. It’s still busy inside, and the kitchen is already out of chicken, carnitas, and barbacoa.
As two young men in baseball caps order in Spanish, I decide to browse the store. Shelves stocked to varying degrees contain packets of Mexican hot chocolate and brightly colored candies in small bags. Justin immediately reaches for a large pouch of Gembos plantain chips “con chile, limon, sal y chicharron” (with chili, lime, salt, and pork skins). There’s a case of baked goods, including squares of cakes iced in pink, and a cooler of Mexican-style paletas made by Charlottesville favorite La Flor Michoacana.
A shelf of cowboy boots catches my eye. I’m drawn to a pair in cactus green with studs on the leather that remind me of an agave leaf’s texture. A few large piñatas hang from the ceiling over a plastic bin full of DVDs and CDs, including a compilation of ’90s Mexican rock, and I wonder if nostalgia is even more profound when you’re not only longing for a different time, but a different place.
The menu includes made-to-order quesadillas, lunch plates with your choice of meat and sides of pinto beans and rice, and, if you get there early enough, tamales. We order tacos: three for $7.99. We get a one steak (recommended by the chef as she sets out a freshly made tray of meat), one chorizo, and one special-order vegetarian taco with pinto beans, rice, cheese, and lettuce.
There’s a small wooden patio outside where we share our plate and a bottle of Coke. The pinto beans are addictive with a nice amount of heat, and the fresh cilantro brightens up the density of the chewy corn tortillas that double-wrap each taco. But overall, the vegetarian taco is a bit lackluster—it’s clear that Las Cavanas is all about the meat.
“This is really good,” Justin says of the chorizo. “Very spicy, juicy, robust flavors.” The spice in the steak is a bit more restrained, but the meat is hearty. I dip my fork into what’s left of the guacamole and savor the salt, citrus, and fattiness of the dip on its own. Through the trees around the patio I spot the outline of the Blue Ridge Mountains, reminding me that we aren’t far from the wineries and breweries on 151. If you needed something to help soak up an afternoon of drinking, this would be the spot.
The Market at Preston Ave.
601 Preston Ave.
Go for: Fried chicken plate
It’s 3pm on a July afternoon, one of those days when the heat physically pushes down your head and shoulders. Inside the Preston Avenue Exxon I’m jolted back to attention by the chill of air conditioning and the sound of fist-pumping dance music. Tiger Fuel’s The Market acquired the gas station’s restaurant last October, but it kept the most popular item on the menu.
“They come for the chicken,” says Deondre, the young man working the register that day. “People from all over the area come for lunch.”
Starting at $4.99 a plate, it has to be one of the best lunch deals in town. It’s enough food that I’m glad I brought Justin to help me share the tray. We ask Deondre to serve us his “ultimate perfect plate,” which consists of two pieces of dark meat, a side of macaroni and cheese, a side of mashed potatoes, and a roll.
As Deondre assembles a staggering plate of starch, I attempt to get some recipe secrets out of him. No luck. He tells me, “We just take our time and try to make a good product.”
As the music switches to a swingy beach tune, we sit at a high-top table near the beer case in the back, and I think about how my mother would scold me for only having one color on my plate. From the darkest brown of the chicken to the cream color of the mashed potatoes, I know that this meal would have her trying to locate the nearest salad bar. This is “cheat day” food.
The potatoes have a nice punch of fresh herbs and garlic, and the macaroni and cheese is smooth and gooey, the way I like it. The chicken is crispy and good, though a bit on the heavy side. Justin, a self-proclaimed connoisseur of condiments, is underwhelmed by the signature “Tiger Sauce,” which he ascertains is basically chipotle sour cream. I personally can’t imagine taking something as flavorful as fried chicken and dunking it into a different flavor enhancer. You eat fried chicken because you’ve decided you need fried chicken, and that’s that.
El Tropical Deli
1177 Fifth St.
Go for: Steak Baleadas
From the street, the Shell gas station on Fifth Street gives no indication of the kitchen inside. The only thing that could lead you to this true hidden gem of a Latin American joint is your nose.
“I walked in to get a drink, and smelled the food,” says Jonathan Duenas, who estimates that he’s visited the deli at least 10 times since he moved to Charlottesville a month ago. He’s staying at the Sleep Inn next door, and likes to stop here before his night shift at the nearby Food Lion. He calls this his breakfast.
We sit near the cold drinks section, where two picnic tables are pushed together, as our food is prepared. It’s all very clean and tidy. A flatscreen mounted over a refrigerator full of coffee drinks is playing “Chopped Junior.” Above the deli counter, there are flamingo and toucan piñatas hanging from the ceiling. The air is sweet with the smell of something being caramelized.
Jonathan says he’s never eaten at a gas station like this before. “We don’t have these kinds of places in North Carolina,” he says. “It’s homemade cooking here.”
I’ve ordered the baleadas asada (a Honduran dish with beans, cheese, and steak folded in half inside a thick flour tortilla), which the young girl at the register recommended, and sopes (thick corn tortillas with toppings) with chorizo. Jonathan says he’s tried a few different things on the menu, but the steak is his favorite.
It’s close to 6pm, and several men stop for food, looking like they’ve finished a shift at work. They order confidently without needing to even glance at the menu, written mostly in Spanish, on the small whiteboard in front of the register. Clearly this is not their first time. It’s not too long before our food is ready and the cashier tosses in a few small containers of their hottest hot sauce.
In the car with my to-go order, the smell of the food hints at the possibility that I discovered someplace truly special. What if this little gas station kitchen with a generic name and no sign is actually the real deal? The first bite confirms my high hopes. The baleadas is unbelievable. The small chunks of steak are juicy and smooth and there’s a velvety sauce (the cashier describes it as a Honduran style of sour cream) that rounds out each bite, along with a generous portion of avocado. The sopes are also a delight, with crisp chorizo and crunchy fresh lettuce atop chewy disks of masa.
Justin, a chili head who grows his own Carolina Reapers, tries the house sauce and delightedly proclaims that it is hotter than anything your average Mexican restaurant would serve. He discerns a variety of hot peppers, including habaneros.
It’s a lot of food for $8.33, and it does not taste cheap. This is not only some of the best food I’ve ever eaten at a gas station, but some of the best Latin American food I’ve had in town. Jonathan said it best back at the picnic table: “A little hole in the wall restaurant—that’s where the best meals are.”
1218 Avon St.
Go for: The fried chicken, of course
You can’t talk about gas station food without including Brown’s. The local favorite that’s famous for offering a free piece of chicken when you fill your tank serves poultry so prized that they recently managed to catch the attention of Food & Wine magazine, which included it as one of their “5 Best Stops for Gas Station Fried Chicken in Virginia.”
“It started in the country, where I’m from in Esmont,” says loyal customer Kevi Jones. “That’s why it’s so good.” Jones has been coming to Brown’s for over 10 years, and estimates that she’s been at least three times in the last two weeks alone. She likes to get the two piece meal with macaroni and cheese and baked beans after she gets off work from her job as a caregiver.
On a recent Friday evening, Jones orders her food with complete certainty, and asks the server to confirm whether the dark meat or the light meat came out first (they came out at the same time). “The customer service is great,” she adds.
Visiting Brown’s, I’m struck by the feeling that I’ve stepped back in time— not because of the physical store, which is as modern as any other gas station, but because of the feel of the space. “How are the kids?” the cashier asks another customer, and familiar small talk is punctuated by bursts of laughter.
As I bite into a chicken breast, perfectly crunchy on the outside and oozing with flavor within, I wonder, how do they do it? The answer may lie in the spice blends (top secret) and technique. But Mike Brown, who has been at the store since 2011, has a spiritual explanation: “It’s blessed by almighty God.”