I’ve eaten very good food at independently-owned American gas stations, nibbling my way through green chile peanut brittle in Santa Rosa, New Mexico and country ham biscuits in Cismont, Virginia. The fare I’ve picked up at roadside chains has been far less memorable. I’ll occasionally make a 7-Eleven or Stop-N-Go pitstop for a lottery ticket, pack of peanut butter crackers or a Slurpee. But I give the footlong hot dogs and nachos with melted cheese a pass.
I’ve been reflecting upon gas station cuisine since September, when I returned to LA from a mind-blowing trip to Tokyo. I sampled a vast array of food at convenience stores there that would certainly be considered gourmet by our quick mart standards. At one of Japan’s most ubiquitous chains, Lawson, I ate fried pork cutlet and egg salad sandwiches between tasty bites of nori-wrapped triangles of rice filled with chargrilled salmon belly. I chased these delicacies with a frothy matcha green tea latte and bought a limited edition bottle of Suntory whisky to go. At Family Mart, which had a short-lived stint in Los Angeles under the name Famima!!, I withdrew yen from my American bank at no extra charge, considered ordering tickets to a rock show and flipped through a glossy binder of elaborate three-layer Christmas cakes that could be made-to-order. The 7-Eleven fare tempted me, too: shelves of colorfully-packaged cartons of instant ramen, surgical masks to prevent passing germs to my traveling mates and chocolate soy flour donuts hanging behind glass containers at check-out.
Five years ago, you didn’t see quite as much grab-and-go food in Japanese convenience stores, according to Lawson spokesman Ming Li. “If you wanted to buy ready-made food, you had to go to the supermarket.” More than ever though, on-the-go eaters are stopping by convenience stores for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “People are busier now and many women are working. There are now more than 50,000 convenience stores in Japan,” said Li.
This makes sense if you think about it. Japan is moderately smaller than California. In a country where most residents don’t drive and work horrendously late hours, only to return to shoebox-sized apartments and kitchens with very little fridge space, it’s no surprise shopping at neighborhood convenience stores has become preferable to taking the train or biking to the nearest supermarket.
Lawson has some 3,000 stores where workers make Japanese curry rice, assemble sandwiches, fry chicken and roll spicy tuna, mayonnaise and rice into onigiri daily. The company has 140 stores in its “natural” line, aimed at meeting the growing demand for organic and healthier meals. You can buy low-carb bran rolls and green smoothies, Chinese-style bao and seasonal offerings of ehomaki rolls to ring in the New Year. There are even foods designed specifically for Japan’s aging population, each package labeled with a 1-to-5 chewability scale. Best of all, everything you’ll find is reasonably priced, with a sandwich just setting you back ¥220 ($2), an onigiri ¥110 ($1).