You can eat on the road, or you can eat Road Food. The same thing? Hardly.
“Eating on the road” is a focus on the road and the desired destination – food is an afterthought. Eating can be viewed as a time-wasting necessity, and half the time eating on the road actually means eating while driving. Eating on the road reminds me of my college commute from Los Angeles to Davis, a torturous 6-8 hour drive along the 5 freeway. With nothing to do except count the cows and sing along to the CD player, the Buttonwillow, CA In-N-Out was not only my chosen stop, but the symbolic half-way point. Because no matter how many times I did that drive, I never cared enough to stop at any of the shady looking restaurants along the way. At one end were my friends and my new-found freedom, and the other home. The destination was always the focus.
On a recent trip up to Lake Tahoe, we took the long way out of Los Angeles, driving on the 14 through Mojave and merging onto the 395 to Bishop and all the way up north. Although a lifetime California resident, I’d never been through this part of the state before. Once out of the desert, we drove through adorable little towns nestled at the base of the forested areas: Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine, Bishop. Pine furniture could be purchased every half-mile and my boyfriend/navigator pointed out the Inyo County Courthouse where we’d end up if we didn’t obey the traffic signs while driving through these quaint little towns.
As we got closer to Tahoe, we drove through a town named Lee Vining. (Sounds like it should be someone’s name, doesn’t it?) We turned off the highway and up a large hill to the prettiest little Mobil station and rest stop you ever did see.
With sweeping views of Mono Lake, this Mobil station is anything but ordinary. The attached building also houses a liquor store, gift shop and The Whoa Nellie Deli. Probably the only gas station in California where you can fill up and get a lobster dinner, this oddity has redefined Road Food.
We had the fish tacos – huge slabs of lightly fried whitefish, one with wasabi coleslaw and the other with mango salsa and a side of beans – and the cowboy steak sandwich. More of a steak than sandwich, it was also enormous and dripping with seasoned butter, even two very hungry travelers could barely manage it all. The Whoa Nellie Deli also has Mammoth Ale on tap, and even though we still had another 115 miles to go, figured one each wouldn’t hurt.
Although you'd probably never see it if you weren't looking for it, and if you're crunched for time you won't want to get out of your car and wait in line for made-to-order food, but the next time you're at the intersection of the 120 West and highway 395, swing by the Tioga Gas Mart, have a beer, forget about the destination and focus on the food.
Tioga Gas Mart
22 Vista Point Road
Lee Vining, CA 93541