We’ve all been there. Driving cross-country, lunch or dinnertime rolls around, options appear scarce, so you pull into the nearest gas station. Your more primitive brain neurons tell you the hot dogs on the roller actually look kind of tasty, the sad fruit basket by the coffee machine will make up for any necessary vitamins and minerals, the pack of peanut M&Ms will keep you perked up. But here in the South, with a little sense of adventure and the right route, there’s no need to put yourself through another meal of mix and match mediocrity.
In fact, some of our region’s best food shines the brightest under the fluorescent-lit awnings of a fuel stop. Whether it’s a grab-and-go hot tamale in Mississippi or a sit-down pork chop dinner in North Carolina, our roads are dotted with example after example of Southerners’ near incapacity to serve forgettable food no matter the setting or proximity to a major city.
A list of 100 gas station restaurants would still come up short, but here are 10 favorites to plan your next road trip around.
Blue Pacific at Hoover Food Mart
Parked outside the Hoover Food Mart, you wouldn’t think that the city’s best Thai food awaits inside, but Birmingham residents across the city venture far down Highway 280 to dine on dumplings, Pad Thai, Panang curry, and a near urban legend-level pork noodle soup—each decorated with crushed peanuts, lime wedges, scallions, and even basil grown outside in a pot. Owner Sam Aroon and his wife Pranchit use the recipes from Pranchit’s grandmother’s restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand, including the stir-fry dishes Rad Nah and Phat Si-Ew.
Small town gas station sushi is universally accepted as synonymous with bad idea, but Bayou Fresh would like to serve you some shock and awe with a side of pickled ginger and wasabi. From sculptural sashimi to artful avocado rolls, the sushi you’ll find in this humble facility doesn’t require you to adjust your expectations for the location. Prefer your fish cooked? They also offer fried, blackened, and grilled options.
In this tiny North Mississippi town, the BP gas station also stands for Biscuit Pit. What the biscuits here lack in Instagrammable layers, they make up for in character. Made from scratch, each thin biscuit is cut by hand with the opened end of a tin can, and on their busiest day, the cooks can crank out over 1,000 of them. The Biscuit Pit also acts as a sort-of town hall where locals get together to talk about football and other happenings over sausage-egg biscuits, sometimes with a little smear of grape jelly. Community matters so much here that when a regular passes away, they are remembered with a painted mug in the shelf called the “cup ministry.”
Louisiana is less a state, more a mystical, magical country of its own within the rest of the South, and we’re so glad it is. If you need more proof of this, stop in at Billy Billeaud’s gas station where the shelves are stocked with five different kinds of rice, plastic containers of homemade hog lard, cans of Steen’s cane syrup, shakers of Tony Chachere’s seasoning, and red-lidded jars of pickled quail eggs. But the main attraction here is boudin. A mandatory meal for any Cajun country road trip, boudin is a specialty sausage typically made with rice, pork shoulder, pork liver, onions, herbs, and seasonings. Billy’s is considered some of the best you can find in the state and is often used as a deal closing gift by salesman in the area.
Texas has given the world so much: fajitas, Willie Nelson, graphing calculators. But perhaps one of its most underrated treasures is the Kolache, a traditional Czechoslovakian pastry that resembles a cushion of yeast dough surrounding a sweet or savory filling. Typical flavors include cherry, peach, apple, poppy seed, cream cheese, and sausage. One of the state’s best Kolache bakeries, Czech Stop, happens to be conveniently located mere feet from the highly traveled Interstate 35. Some people argue that Slovacek’s down the street has a better Kolache, but we’ll let you be the judge of that.
Saxapahaw General Store
Have you ever been pumping gas in your car and thought, “Gee, a locally raised short rib dinner with garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed greens sounds good right about now.” Haven’t we all? If you’re filling up at the Saxapahaw General Store, all you need do is walk inside to fulfill your wish. Nearly every ingredient on the menu is sourced locally from the eggs in the breakfast burrito to the fish, pan-seared and served with risotto, white wine-butter sauce, and asparagus. We can get behind any establishment that lets us buy a Reuben with house-made pastrami and laundry soap at the same time.
Two unassuming buildings occupy either side of Madison Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. The brick building that looks like it might be an insurance agency is Ardent Studios associated with such legends at Big Star, James Taylor, Sam and Dave, R.E.M., John Prine, and Isaac Hayes. Across the street, the gas station complete with the requisite “Kw” instead of a “Qu” in the name, specializes in Korean-Mediterranean cuisine. While the homemade hummus and kimchi burrito don’t disappoint, The Bi Bim Bop Burger has become the dish of obsession with locals: a beef patty topped with stir-fry veggies, a sunny-side-up egg, spicy Korean sauce, and mayo on a sesame seed bun.
Delta Fast Food
Tamales abound in the Delta, but the ones made at Delta Fast Food are, as advertised on the building’s mural, “shuck lickin’ good!” Translation: even the sauce-drenched husks are that great. Owner Gentle Lee Rainey was born the grandson of sharecroppers nearby on Dockery Plantation, the home of blues forefathers Charlie Patton, Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson. Rainey still uses his grandfather’s recipe for his beef, turkey, and chicken tamales that he boils every night for locals and tourists traveling Highway 61.
Pig Trail Bypass Country Cafe
The outside of this wooden cabin surrounded by not much more than a few country roads and the majestic Ozark Mountains reads more chicken fried steak than Iranian food, but inside you’ll find the famous Hooshburger named after owner Hooshang Nazarali who ended up staying in America after attending college in Texas due to the Iranian Revolution. His Hooshburger featuring a house-ground beef patty seasoned with a blend of Middle Eastern spices, onion, and cheese proves a powerful draw that brings college students down the winding Pig Trail from Fayetteville.
Fish Net Seafood
John’s Island, SC
The menu at Fish Net Seafood is nothing fancy. It’s printed on computer paper and taped to the wall; major nouns include the words fish, shrimp, hush puppies–the usual. But one item stands out: Jesus Crab. What is the Lord’s name doing next to a crustacean? Well, instead of deviled crab, the owners of this locally loved seafood stop decided to use a more heavenly adjective. It’s fitting as the crabs here are perfectly cooked not just for roadside standards.