Do food snobs eat at gas stations?

by Brian Clarey

I have been pampered and spoiled by some of the best chefs in the world, have sated my hunger in a few of the finest restaurants that ever existed, have paired Gewurztraminers with sweetbreads and eaten desserts that made me moan.

In 1997 I dined at Emeril’s, the New Orleans Warehouse District stronghold of Emeril Lagasse, long hailed as the most uncomfortable restaurant with the best tasting food in that city famous for drool-inducing eateries. Emeril’s has (or had’… I’m not sure how they’re doing down there these days) an open kitchen, and when I looked back there I noticed that Lagasse himself was cooking my lunch.

Later that evening I had the pleasure to watch Lagasse and his crew break down the kitchen. It was like a military operation, with teams of white-clad kitchen workers scurrying about like ants while Emeril stood on a chair and shouted directions. Only he was allowed to speak.

In 1999 I had the pleasure to dine with Chef Duke LoCicero at Café Giovanni on Decatur Street, where the waiters sing opera and where I once saw Charles Barkley cavorting at the bar with a bunch of plumpish groupies (this was a while after he retired from basketball, and the Quote Machine himself looked none too svelte). That was the year Chef Duke won a national award for a dish consisting of grilled shrimp big like a fat man’s fingers and scallops as big around as poker chips quickly pan-seared served with a sweet saki soy reduction and a ramiken of jasmine rice. I had it, with a salad that contained like 15 ingredients, including crisped leek strips and jumbo lump crabmeat picked from actual crabs right back there in Duke’s kitchen.

I’ve done Spago and Le Cirque and Commanders Palace. I’ve sat at Antoine’s and Arnaud’s and Galatoire’s and Alex Patout’s. I once spent an entire evening at Bayona, Susan Spicer’s magnificent restaurant in the French Quarter, where she did things with liver that nearly made me weep.

You might say that I was once a food snob. This was before my situation in life ‘— a married man with three kids ‘— prevented me from enjoying three-hour, five- to seven-course meals that cost about half my rent. I still carry some vestiges of my epicurean arrogance, like when I scoff at canned oysters or when I roll my eyes as my wife puts pasta in the pot before the water begins to boil, but I believe my days as a member of the superior palate club are numbered.

This is because I have a new favorite restaurant. And it’s in a gas station.

Go ahead and laugh’… it’s pretty funny, but I can’t and won’t go without my Sheetz.

I discovered the chain years ago while crossing Virginia on one of our thrice yearly drives to New York and became enamored of their low, low gas prices and clean restrooms. But I didn’t start eating there until they built the one on Wendover just off the interstate. It started slow ‘— I grabbed a pre-made breakfast sandwich from under a hot lamp by the door on my way to buy cigarettes. A hash brown, too. I ate them at the office and found them comparable to, if not tastier than, the other breakfast sandwich products out there. The ‘schmuffin’ sandwich became a semi-regular part of my morning routine, though I started ordering them fresh rather than grabbing the pre-made ones.

Then I got more adventurous, ordering a Buffalo chicken wrap, rolled with lettuce and bleu cheese dressing. Awesome. I branched out into the roast beef melt and the jalapeño-filled pretzel. I started ordering fancy coffees from the coffee bar and making plans to visit the milkshake machine. I considered opening a line of credit.

I started talking about Sheetz at the office, at my house, to strangers in bars. And I delved deeper into their menu.

A few weeks ago I had a black and bleu steak fajita wrap that was one of the tastiest things I’ve ever eaten that took less that three minutes to prepare, no sheet, and it would stand well with anything from a delicate Pinot Noir to a spicy Zinfandel to a big, bold Cabernet.

So maybe my slide from foodie snob to fast-food slob is not yet complete, but I can see the writing on the electronic touch-screen and I know that my days as a gourmand are numbered.

I tried a new menu item at Sheetz last week. They’re called macaroni and cheese bites, flash-fried triangles of warm, fuzzy goodness that would either go very well with, say, a smoky Fumé Blanc or would taste even better if served on sticks. Such is my life as a falling epicure.