‘Oh thank heaven,” 7-Eleven’s famous tagline begins, an apparent reference to the relief hungry customers feel when they stumble upon one of the convenience giant’s stores.
But some of the food we turn to in a pinch seems to come from the other place: hot dogs slowly shriveling on a roller grill; packaged baked goods filled with a list of preservatives longer than the Book of Jeremiah; sad, limp fruit that passes for health food.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Some of the best tacos I’ve had were ordered from a window in a Dallas-area gas station. Ramshackle shops all over the South fry up amazing chicken or smoke meat out back. And during high school, I worked one summer at a Wawa franchise — the gold standard of c-stores. There’s even a Facebook page devoted to begging Wawa to open in Boston.
So with a month left in road-trip season, I commandeered a colleague and a Zipcar and set out to find the best desperation food around. Would it be healthy? It would not. But I’ve lost about 40 pounds since the beginning of the year (my diet secret: “never eat”), and how much damage could I really do in one day?
Naturally, we started at a 7-Eleven. The world’s largest convenience chain with about 63,000 stores is said to be improving its food offerings in the United States, giving franchisees more leeway to offer locals things they might like, according to a February story in industry publication Convenience Store Decisions (What? You don’t subscribe?). 7-Eleven declined my requests to discuss the company’s changing food options, or suggest a particular store that best reflects that vision.
Whether that vision involves tucking into a package of oddly plasticine hard-boiled eggs outside the State Street 7-Eleven, I can’t say. But I also can’t recommend that particular experience. Nor can I vouch for the iced coffee, which a display helpfully suggests you prepare to your specifications by filling a Big Gulp cup with ice at the soda machine, then dumping scalding hot coffee directly on top. Dunkin’ is in no danger from this particular competitor. A sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich on an English muffin reasonably approximated the McDonald’s version after a few seconds in the industrial microwave. Maybe one of the fresh fruit options, some but not all of which were past their expiration date, would have been a better choice.
We moved on. The Framingham-based Cumberland Farms chain is probably the best local option for transplanted Wawa devotees. The coffee is good and cheap. The bakery items are fresh and filling. And the chain’s “new concept” locations — mostly well outside the city, though the store in Southie has been remodeled — are practically palatial. The store we went to in Somerville, sadly, is not. Avoid the French toast breakfast sandwich at all costs: The combination of slimy and salty has a distinct Donner Party vibe.
But things really began to go off the rails at Speedway, an Ohio-based gas and convenience chain. Eating at every gas station you pass is a good recipe for regret, but none are quite so profound as the “Boneless BBQ Rib Hoagie” here. The microwave at the Allston Speedway is inexplicably at ankle height, so heating up your sandwich involves placing it uncomfortably close to the floor. The industrial pork patty inside the sandwich appeared to have been created by running over a hog carcass with a tank a few times. It’s the McRib you get at the McDonald’s drive-through in hell.
It was 10:30 in the morning. We were already starting to feel sick. Enough with the chains: We headed around the corner to Night Star Convenience in Allston, where $5 gets you a perfectly good sub — the kind of cold-cut sandwich you might make at home before heading to the beach. (Of course, if pre-making sandwiches at home was the kind of thing we could be counted on to do consistently, the world would not need 63,000 7-Elevens.)
Perhaps because of the preponderance of college kids and young adults around, Allston is now studded with convenience stores. In the 40 years Alexandra Pappas has been behind the counter at Coolidge Market, an old-fashioned corner store on a side street off of Allston’s main drag, the industry she entered when she arrived from Greece has overwhelmed her. Within maybe 3,000 feet of her shop, there are two 7-Elevens, two Speedways, at least two other corner stores, and a Star supermarket.
Pappas can’t compete, and mostly gave up trying. The collection of sundries for sale appears to be almost random: ketchup and Klondike bars and a few bags of chips. Pappas doesn’t believe in the lottery, and she keeps several lightly used pairs of her own shoes on one of the shop’s otherwise empty shelves in case someone wants a pair.
But if you can find a better Italian sandwich for $4.50 anywhere in Massachusetts, you’re probably better off keeping that secret to yourself. Pappas carefully layered pickles and peppers and tomatoes and cold cuts and oil and vinegar onto a sub roll until they were heaped so high it would not close. She lives upstairs, and one of her sons, who works in commercial real estate, pops in to help out when he can.
It wasn’t even noon, and we were stuffed full of salami and capicola and Klondike bars. Following a reader suggestion, we took the Turnpike out to Waltham, where local Latin-American convenience store Despensa Familiar recently opened a second location on Elm Street, with a full-on meat market and hot-food counter in the back of a small convenience store. I ate more of a guacamole-slathered steak hoagie, topped with vinegary slaw, hot sauce, and mayo, than was reasonable.
North of the city, we found further redemption at two gas stations. In Stoneham, the Circle K convenience store at the Mobil station on Main Street is serving up legitimately good fried chicken from the Krispy Krunchy chain, cooked in the little kitchen out back. Cheaper and better than that big chain that isn’t Popeye’s, the chicken is crisp and meaty and piping hot — and they’ll even fry up some fish for you.
Check the case up front for all manner of fried goodies, such as corn dogs and softball-sized spheres of breaded macaroni and cheese. There’s a small sign out front, but I’d driven by that gas station more than a few times and had no clue what was going on inside until a reader recommended it.
Slice Pizza & More, inside the AL Prime gas station in Wakefield, isn’t much of a secret at this point. It’s a full-blown pizza joint in the back of a fairly typical quickie mart, churning out gourmet pizzas and sandwiches and giant, New York-style slices.
It was 3 in the afternoon. We’d had eight meals, scarfing down bad sandwiches on stacks of milk crates and taquitos near smoldering ash trays. Despite spending all day in an air-conditioned car, I was sweating profusely. I missed my diet of raw almonds and undressed kale.
But pizza? Always.
I folded up the slice of pepperoni that appeared to be a quarter of a large pizza and stuffed it into my face hole. Even piled atop the day’s chaos in my stomach, it was a delicious slice. And so convenient!