Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Eating in Gas Stations - Part One - The Political Sandwich

Who does this?  What kind of entrepreneurial madman would put an upscale eatery serving fare for wayward foodie hipsters in bespoke denim inside a decidedly bombed out gas station situated in the gastronomic wasteland of long-troubled inner city neighborhood?  Who would do such a thing?  A fiscal self-saboteur in the final throes of, say, bladder cancer or a nasty divorce, intent on total financial shipwreck to effectively dump his empire of net worth overboard and into a roiling sea of bankruptcy?  Or would it be the Birkenstock-wearing, patchouli-smelling child of privilege, some last goateed survivor of the dot.com age with elbow patches on his corduroy blazer and who is still delusional on the conviction that complimentary Wi-Fi and the free-trade coffee of pseudo-liberal self-congratulations will inspire denizens of this blighted urban ghetto to rise up in revolution?  Neither?  Both?

Restaurants, so goes the long-prevailing wisdom of food purveyance, thrive or perish not just on the savor of their fare, but where, precisely, they are located.  The ultimate success of a restaurant is based on a highly nuanced algorithm of Newtonian complexity involving foot traffic, proximity to public transportation, population density, parking, lunch traffic, real traffic, with the caprice of chance and calculus of bad or good luck thrown in to boot.  Culinary empires rise or fall on where, exactly, a restaurant peddles its fare.  Location, location, location is the maxim whispered under every restaurateur’s breath, the dictum tattooed across his soul.

Unless it’s not.  Unless the idea of the perfect location is, in fact, the worst possible location ever.  Unless shoving a high-end sandwich boutique up the ass crack of an otherwise unassuming and innocent inner city gas station is the blueprint for culinary excellence and financial triumph.  Unless you know the implicit fuck you inherent in subverting the expectations of the general eating public will act like equal parts cat nip and fish chum on hoards of local hipsters tipsy at 1AM on microbrew and happily willing to shell out fifteen bucks for a fucking sandwich.  Be the genius behind this location strategy sinisterly Machiavellian or blissfully accidental, it works.  It worked on me as it’s surely worked on thousands of others.  Because for an eater like me, like all of us, it’s not the location of a meal, but the context of a culinary experience that matters.  The success or failure of a meal is often not food-based, but situational.  Someone promising to feed me really great food in a shit hole is simply something I cannot pass up.  So on a sunny January late afternoon, I hurried to Washington’s 14th and W Streets and the woebegone Lowest Price Gas Station that stands there to see what all the foodie hipster buzz on Fast Gourmet was all about.

In my experience, the rule is this:  if you have to tell me you’re gourmet, you’re likely not.  But once inside Fast Gourmet, I understood why they might have felt compelled to err on the side of obviousness, and why they might want to drive the point home.  Because inside the dining area of Fast Gourmet, all 300-or-so square feet of it, was a perfect microcosm of all that gentrification (or so-called “urban renewal”) brings to a city.  In the rear of the dining area were gathered a dozen or so neighborhood folks, all of them African American, whom the tide of poverty and institutional inequity had beached there, back by the locked bathrooms, with no where else to go and with nothing else to do other than to watch me, some over-educated white fucker in an Italian-made camel hair coat walk up to the Fast Gourmet counter and order a $13 sandwich and a $4 Pellegrino to wash it down.  Did the presence of Fast Gourmet awaken and enliven their culinary wonder, affording access to truly wholesome and delicious foods heretofore unavailable?   Or did the advent of Fast Gourmet ruin the availability of otherwise affordable and perfectly palatable, even delicious, gas station favorites like hotdogs and pizza?  Clearly none of the local folks were here for anything but a sense of community and bodily warmth.  Yet none failed to be anything but hospitable and downright polite.  So I ordered my sandwich and sat at the rear-most table beside them all, eavesdropping on all the neighborhood gossip and quickly forgetting my own white urban neo-imperialist guilt to tackle the formidable task at hand:  devouring a sandwich nearly the size of my head.

I had ordered the El Chivito.  It was huge.  A monster.  And the unofficial national dish of Uruguay.  The El Chivito is made of beef tenderloin (pounded cutlet thin), Black Forest Ham, melted mozzarella, green olives, bacon, lettuce, tomato, hard boiled egg, and an escabeche made from onion, red peppers, and garlic in olive oil.  It was delicious.  No doubt about that.  But was it thirteen dollars worth of deliciousness?  Was it dollar-for-dollar, inch-for-inch, a better sandwich than what I could grab at the local Blimpie inside the Shell station in my own neighborhood?

The ultimate decision would have to come from Amy T. of Living Social fame.  Amy just happened to come into Fast Gourmet as I was pondering this quandary.  It was a chance meeting and our first.  For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, Amy’s the kind of woman for whom you stop what you’re doing to watch cross a room (that means she’s a hottie for all you sporting lads out there).  She sat at the counter opposite me and installed herself with a laptop and a Smartphone and a plate of really delicious looking food and began to encrypt her own Fast Gourmet experience into binary code.  Imagine a laughably absurd episode of Spy v. Spy and you’ve got the idea.  The irony that two “food writers” had converged on the same eatery devoid of any actual paying customers was not lost on me, nor was the hunch that I was party to everything I detested about gentrification.  I was, as usual, guilty as guilty could be.

So I decided to lighten it up a bit.  I decided to speak with Amy.  And being the smooth operator I am, introduced myself just as Amy was taking a bite of her sandwich, forcing her to answer my greeting with a mouthful of food.  She was having the lamb wrap with yogurt sauce and mint and yes, it was very, very good.

Amy smiled then and I knew the matter had been settled; the jury was in.  Fast Gourmet had been declared delicious by an industry professional whose very livelihood depended on her ability to suss out truly tasty food for an eating public perhaps too anxious or too busy to discover something like Fast Gourmet on their own.  And wasn’t cultural cross-pollination the point of this grand American experiment anyway?  Did not racial comingling and collision produce every great American and world shaping idea and art form?  Jazz?  Civil rights?  Rock ‘n roll?  Would not some ultimate good come from the influx of sudsy hipsters and khaki-wearing suburban foodie douchebags into this neighborhood?  Would they not see how others far less privileged than themselves were forced to live, with their noses pressed against the Fast Gourmet glass, forever unable to afford the deliciousness inside?  Would they not pay attention?

Or maybe I should take my cue from Amy, who is, no doubt far, far wiser than me.  Maybe sometimes a sandwich is just a sandwich.  Maybe I should chill out.  Maybe I should just shut up, sit down, and fucking eat.

Your link to Fast Express is below.  Enjoy the aroma.  I know I did.



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