As summer approaches, we’re packing up the beach chairs and bug spray and getting ready to hit the road. Every long drive, of course, involves at least a few stops to refuel, and we don’t just mean gasoline.
As The Baltimore Sun’s dining reporter and restaurant critic, I can tell you that expecting haute cuisine at a gas station is like going to the hardware store looking for milk. However, finding a palatable snack to keep you going ‘til you hit Ocean City? That, you can do.
For many Maryland drivers the most recognizable gas stations include Sheetz, Wawa, High’s and of course Royal Farms. Each place has somehow inspired a fierce loyalty among its customer base. People don’t just “like” the Royal Farms chicken or hoagies from Wawa. They live and die by them with a passion ordinarily reserved for football teams or religious beliefs.
To find out more about what makes these places so appealing, I grabbed lunch at each place.
Everyone knows that Royal Farms, or RoFo as we call it around here, is all about the chicken. If you believe the commercials, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker even serves it to his family for dinner. He also sings opera to honor the chain’s coffee. (Do yourself a favor and re-watch this spot from 2015 in which Tucker belts out ‘Two sugars and some cream, that is my dream’ in his best bass-baritone.) It’s not just Tucker. In 2017, Food & Wine magazine called it “some of the best fast-food fried chicken à la gas station” and featured it in a list of “10 Gas Station Foods Across the Country That Are Worth the Detour.”
Royal Farms originated as Baltimore’s Cloverland Dairy in 1918 and delivered milk to Baltimore homes. The first “milk store” opened in 1959, evolving into a gas station later. Just over 20 years ago, the company nailed its “top secret recipe” for delicious, mass produced chicken. Today, their staff manages to keep the stuff well-seasoned and, above all, crispy no matter what time of day you’re walking in. Sure, it’s greasy, and don’t bother asking if it’s free range. I’ll risk alienating the entire state of Maryland by stating that it has a convenience store aftertaste. And yet, it might just be the best meal you can eat in a gas station.
Where to find it: The company has 219 stores “and growing” in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, according to its website.
What to get: The fried chicken, but you knew that already.
I’ve yet to encounter any rabid pro-High’s fans. Give it time; the chain is relatively new to the gas station game, having begun selling fuel after being acquired by Carroll Fuel in 2012. Their menu has some tasty options that go toe-to-toe with their peers. As my colleague Dan Rodricks recently noted in his column, they added an $8.99 crab cake to their offerings. I wolfed one down as an appetizer to a feast of chicken tenders, hush puppies and mac and cheese. The crab cake is loaded up with filler, but it’s surprisingly well-seasoned and tasted reasonably fresh for a gas station cake. The hush puppies were fresh and crispy, better than the forgettable chicken tenders.
Where High’s really wins points in my book is with their dairy products, which makes sense given its origin as an ice cream shop. I’d go back to order another thick, creamy milkshake, an ideal copilot for the trip across the Bay Bridge. High’s may just need a high profile brand spokesman to boost their image. Since Tucker is taken, I’d recommend Orioles pitcher John Means.
Where to find it: High’s has more than 50 locations in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
What to get: A milkshake
Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey is home to a Wawa mafia, hoagie-obsessed superfans who seek out the chain wherever they go. But Wawa, headquartered in Wawa, Pennsylvania, has been making inroads in Maryland, too. In 2019, Wawa announced a multi-year agreement with the Ravens to make Wawa the team’s “official hoagie” and partner.
Similar to High’s, it started out in the world of dairy. In more recent years, stores offer sandwiches — excuse me, hoagies — prepared on crusty bread. They also have a menu of freshly made paninis that can be made to order through a handy kiosk. I snapped up a meatball hoagie during a recent visit. While the baguette-like bread surpassed my expectations for a gas station hoagie, the tomato sauce had a creamy sweetness that made me think of Chef Boyardee. Next time, I’ll try their cheesesteak.
Where to find it: Wawa has more than 850 convenience retail stores — more than 600 offering gasoline — in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Florida, and Washington. The chain plans to expand its footprint in Maryland, too.
What to get: A hoagie
You can’t mention Wawa without mentioning its Altoona-based archrival, Sheetz, the preferred gas station of Steelers fans and the Western part of the state in general. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that Sheetz is much more abundant in the Western part of Maryland, too, with several located around Frederick and only a handful near Baltimore, including one that opened in Carroll County in 2018; its arrival was met with long lines that stretched into the parking lot next door.
Yes, “Sheetz freakz” are a devoted bunch. Many flock to the chain for their burgers, which you can customize to your heart’s content. Tastier still are their addictive curly fries, which tasted fresh and well-seasoned. And don’t tell Justin Tucker, but I’m a fan of their coffee machines which pour a European-style crema on top. Also, fun fact: Like RoFo, High’s and Wawa, Sheetz also has roots in the dairy game.
Where to find it: Sheetz lists around 30 Maryland locations on its website.
What to get: Curly fries.