by Liza Jones
It’s inevitable that in a rural region like the Delta, where little towns and cities are scattered all over the place, driving becomes a way of life. It stands to reason that because of this, gas stations became meeting places—social, commercial, and most especially, culinary meccas. In any given Delta town, you are likely to find more people at the main gas station than at the grocery store, if there is one. These hubs in the form of truck stops, fuel stations, and convenient stores come in different shapes and sizes, or rather, in all tastes and flavors, with specialties to set them apart. The adventurous tourist could find any kind of unexpected, appetizing food gem by stopping at a roadside location for some kind of need, like a bottle of water. What they end up with is something they didn’t know they needed, like a chicken biscuit.
For all intents and purposes, a gourmet gas station is considered any restaurant that has fuel pumps or that once had fuel pumps. Active or dried up, the fuel pumps become secondary to the cuisine. The vestigial pumps or a service station structure give the restaurant a certain magnetism. This is because gas station dining is a mainstay of Southern culture. It’s a comfort thing, and always a speedy and delicious answer.
Stafford Shurden from Drew recently started an online video series called the Gas Station Tailgate Review, in which he tastes and rates gas station food in the Delta and all over Mississippi. “The gas station is a continuation of the commissaries of the plantations that dotted the landscape,” Shurden says. “Those commissaries were a hub of commerce for farms all over. Today’s gas stations serve that same purpose.”
Places like Fratesi Grocery and Services Station in Leland, Delta Fast Food in Cleveland, Betty’s Place in Indianola, and Maddox Grocery in Avon have become legendary, visited by people who come from all over to taste their specialties, and the specialties are important—the uniqueness is what sets them apart and makes them individually memorable. The customer comes away remembering the food in conjunction with the place, and it sticks.
For instance, Roy’s Store near Chatham on Lake Washington is an attraction in every sense of the word. The proprietors rent out fishing cabins, and half of the store is filled with supplies. In the store, you feel a sense of place as soon as you walk in and look at the collection of old-timey things that decorate the old store and restaurant. But it’s the hot menu that keeps you there, most notably, the hot breakfast. Most service stations don’t have a complete kitchen in the back to cook up anything the heart desires first thing in the morning. Surrounded by any number of locals, tourists, hunters, fishers, and farmers discussing business and life over coffee, you could have a full plate of eggs and French toast, made to order, all inside a service station and store.
Of course everyone knows that Double Quick chicken is some of the best fried chicken out there, especially at the location on Main Street in Greenwood. And Hunt’s Brothers pizza is a godsend everywhere for the hungry remote traveler or the isolated farm family unable to have pizza delivered.
Outside of the chicken or pizza box, however, there are a couple of wonderful ethnic food options, remarkable in their authenticity:
La Sierrita on Highway 82 East in Greenville was opened by Maricela and Refujio Garcia, who met in Greenville after she moved here from Texas. She was working in childcare, and he was working at various restaurants in the area. Their dream was to get married and open a restaurant of their own. They had a partner in mind, and when he backed out, they decided to go ahead and open it on their own. In December of 2014, their dream was realized when the owner of an old truck stop rented his property to them. The Midway Truck Stop: Motel & Café sign still stands at this location on the outskirts of Greenville, but you have to be looking for La Sierrita—the sign hangs in front of where the fuel pumps used to be, in green, white, and red. Otherwise, you could easily miss it.
Named after Maricela’s town in Mexico, La Sierrita offers an extensive, genuine Mexican menu. The salsa is impeccable with cilantro and the right amount of heat. The Chorizo cheese dip is not to be missed. They’re known for their torta Cubana, a dressed sandwich stuffed to the brim with sauce, meat, and cheese. And the menu overwhelms with all kinds of Mexican fare: fajitas, tacos, nachos, burritos, tostadas, and more. In truth, they have the kind of menu that really doesn’t disappoint. Any of the dishes served with a cold, Mexican beer to wash it down would gratify anyone with a hankering for authentic Mexican food. It’s clear their ingredients are fresh, and in keeping with the culture of fuel stops, their service is fast, but the food is also cooked perfectly.
Vestiges of the old truck stop are obvious in the restaurant, as there is an old shower in the bathroom, now made into a changing room to accommodate families with children. Along with the front of the building where the fuel pumps used to be, the walls of the restaurant pay homage to the old truck stop the building once was: trucks driving on scenic highways are painted above the booths and tables. All in all, La Sierrita is a welcoming place with superior flavor to back it up.
In Leland, off North Broad Street, you can find the only Indian cuisine around. A nameless convenience store, with old Pure fuel pumps, stands right across from Deer Creek. There’s only an advertisement for Bud Light outside the store. Inside the store is everything a convenience store in the Delta should be: drinks, gum, Kool-Aid pickles, snacks, pickled eggs, beer, and some random gifts and oddities.
You’d think you were in a regular convenience store until you see a binder with “A Taste of India” on the front. It stands on top of cookie tins, next to Ritz Cracker sleeves to the right of the cash register. There’s a picture of the Taj Mahal, their phone number, and their website on the front of this binder. Thumbing through it, customers find pages and pages of authentic Indian dishes, divided by type: appetizers, chicken delicacies, goat and lamb, vegetarian delights, rice, naan and parantha, additions, desserts and drinks.
Behind the counter, inside the kitchen, one woman works hard to complete a catering order. She carries large amounts of takeout food to a man who will deliver the food to a local business just in time for lunch. There is no place to sit inside the convenience store so it’s takeout only. It seems best to call ahead too, as the convenient store gets busy around noon.
What catches my eye is the Dal Makhani dish: slow-cooked lentils with onions, tomatoes, and garlic. I decide it would be best with a side of naan, which is leavened, oven-baked flatbread. It’s excellent food, aromatic and satiating, and as is always the case when I eat Indian food, I feel uplifted and healthy after I’m finished.
Shurden articulates exactly what I was thinking after exploring ethnic food at these service stations. He says roadside locations are: “incredibly democratic, being owned by all ethnicities, especially immigrants, and that exposes us to new foods from all around the world.”
These ethnic gourmet gas stations are just a taste of the melting pot represented here in the Delta and in our country, and thank goodness for these places, and all the other tasty pit stops that add to the Delta identity.