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Gas up, chow down

The question seemed a good one at the time: Had the quality of gas-station food risen with the price of gas?

If you're a pay-at-the-pump patron like me, you probably don't get inside gas stations often. So you might be surprised to learn that they now offer far more than leathery wieners set on rollers.

At finer gas stations, you'll discover fruit. Yes, fruit. Uncanned and still in its skin. You'll find salads, hoagies, subs, wraps, fried chicken, vegetable snacks and ... hmmm, sushi?

Another consideration was gas prices. Will rising fuel costs rob from the dining budget? And if so, do gas-station menus offer compelling bargains?

As motorists and motorcyclists get ready to hit highways and back roads for Memorial Day, we decided to sample an eclectic mix of fare from five major gas-station brands around the area. We were guided in part by tips from gastronomes who said we might find something interesting at these spots.

We attempted geographic diversity, stopping at stations in Baltimore City, and Carroll, Howard and Montgomery counties. We also decided the stations must appear to be promoting their food. When my wife and I are riding our motorcycles, we tend to stay off interstates, sticking to back roads and smaller highways. We sought stations on those types of roads.

Disclaimer: Nobody's going to pay me to eat at a fancy restaurant, then publish my qualms with its timbale of quail heart. On the other hand, I'm not devoid of culinary cred. As a one-time food editor, I've tasted greatness from the hands of Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Anne Willan and other foodie dignitaries.

But I fear no chain. The term "pit beef" intrigues me. Canned beer? Boxed wine? Bring them on. Who better, then, to send to the bottom of the epicurean spectrum to sample and report on the offerings of America's least regarded dining venue?

My assistant taster and wife, Bonnie, and I established a tire-based rating system: one tire being the lowest rating, five being the highest. We chose the wiener as our research control item. We'd try one at each stop. We would also order a "signature dish," the most striking or most appealing offering of a given station.

A rule of thumb for choosing what to eat at gas stations: The farther you stray from the hot dog, the more disappointed you are likely to be. Dogs, wraps, sandwiches can sit around all day and not be much worse for the wait. In our experience, other items, such as pasta and sushi, can be born sketchy and go rapidly downhill from there.

>>>High'sAddress // 2101 Sandymount Road, Finksburg

Phone // 410-386-0936

Gas // $3.55 a gallon

The wiener selection included the "Rajun Cajun," $2.79. Who could resist that name? The dog packed respectable pepper heat but lacked the depth of a good andouille and was only lukewarm.

For the "signature dish," we picked the Bar-B-Q Rib and Sauce sandwich, $2.49. I thought it marginally acceptable after discarding the bun, which was soggy. Service was excellent. Ambience: strictly grab and go.

Rating: 3 1/2 tires. The Rajun Cajun's worth a return trip, and good service helps elevate this no-frills stop.

>>>WawaAddress // 805 Leidy Road, Westminster

Phone // 410-871-1009

Gas // $3.55 a gallon

The place is clean, well laid out and packed with variety. Its fruit selection included apples, oranges and bananas. In the same kiosk, you'll find sausage, cheese and cracker snack cups, subs, bagels, veggie snack packs and a variety of wraps. (I've had them in the past. Not bad.)

We picked a Southwest chicken pasta salad, $3.99, for our signature dish and the Big Bacon & Cheddar Hot Dog for the wiener course. The big dog, $3.12, was passable but paled both in color and taste to High's Rajun Cajun. The bacon, thin to translucent, was undetectable unless you ate it separately, and even then it barely registered as bacon.

But what this bad boy lacks in nuance, it makes up for in sheer volume. Wawa offers three mustard choices to enhance the dog's sensory wealth.

The Southwest chicken pasta salad: Interesting. Decent. Lacked a sauce beyond a scoop of salsa.

Service was adequate.

Rating: 4 tires. The last half tire is inflated by the surprising diversity of offerings.

>>>Royal FarmsAddress // 1440 Key Highway, Baltimore

Phone // 410-332-1317

Gas // $3.59 a gallon

Much is made of Royal Farms' fried chicken. I've tried it once and am in no hurry to return. But some Royal Farms gas stations offer sushi. We're talking California rolls. I sampled a six-pack for $3.99. Let me cut to the chase: Do. Not. Go. There.

The Royal Farms dog, on the other hand, was the classic frank, and perfectly acceptable at 99 cents. However, the place's touch-screen ordering means you wait for the dog to be prepared.

Dogs, in my experience, are survivors. They can lie out in the artificial sun of a heat lamp all day and not suffer a whit for the experience. Gimme my dog and let me go.

Rating: 2 1/2 tires. It feels harsh. But not as harsh as the sushi. And waiting for a wiener in a gas station? Come on.

>>>BPAddress // 8181 Maple Lawn Blvd., Fulton

Phone // 301-604-8484

Gas // $3.59 a gallon

True to its upscale surroundings, the store offers a clean, inviting layout. Tables and chairs await those who wish to dine in. I'd sampled the store's chicken and broccoli with rice in an earlier visit. On the bland side, it was nevertheless a surprisingly good meal for a gas station, I thought.

Imagine my sadness when it was not on the menu the day we stopped in on official journalistic business. We decided to try an 8-inch corned-beef-and-Swiss sub, $4.99, for the signature dish.

The BP's dog selection was shockingly meager. But I preferred the $1.39 wiener to the sub. The corned beef, what little there was of it, was tough and flavor-challenged.

The overall effect of the BP was that its visual grandeur overshadows culinary reality, but it was the most modern, inviting place we visited.

Rating: 4 tires. Inflating the rating are rave reviews from folks who frequent the place and my earlier experience with the chicken and broccoli. Also, very pleasant service. On chicken-and-broccoli day, the place could easily have pulled off a 4 1/2 rating.

BEST BITE
>>>Chevron gas station/Sunshine General StoreAddress // 22300 Georgia Ave., Brookeville

Phone // 301-774-7428

Gas // $3.75 a gallon

After a fellow motorcyclist raved about the place, we decided to check it out. Its ambience alone makes it worth the drive.

The station's chipped linoleum floors support shelves bearing everything from tiny cans of Vienna wieners and off-brand sodas to Zebco fishing poles and Alpo dog food. The women working the grill hold court as ad-hoc weather forecasters. A patron at the counter declared: "Best hamburgers in Maryland."

Let's just say the place inspires hyperbole. However, the bacon cheeseburger, $5.75, was quite good. A half pound of ground beef was slapped on the grill. The bacon was thick. Too bad the burger was overly salty.

The hot dog, $1.55, was also superior - the best we had. The bun is improved by a spell on the grill. It, too, suffered from too much salt, though.

Rating: 4 1/2 tires. Among gas stations, Sunshine is a solid 5 on almost every level. But I can't overlook an overly salty burger.

Hard-hearted? Maybe. Hard arteried, certainly.

john.lindner@baltsun.com

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