Gourmet food belongs at a gas station about as much as a 24-karat gold toilet belongs in a Motel 6. Generally speaking, you’re probably out of luck when it comes to finding palatable gas-station food beyond a bag of beef jerky near the checkout counter or taquitos that have been sitting in a heated case for too many hours – unless you happen to find yourself in Walla Walla, Washington, home of Andrae’s Kitchen.
From the gas pumps outside, there’s nothing particularly compelling about Walla Walla’s Cenex station; it looks like just about every other gas station in the U.S. Even after you enter, there’s still nothing that really sets this gas station apart, at least not at first glance – not until you notice the magic that’s happening in the kitchen.
Where the hot case full of corn dogs would normally be is a guy pulling fresh-baked turmeric potato bread out of the oven. And instead of a microwave to heat up your hot pocket, there’s a stove with a bubbling pot full of chicken stock and bacon fat being made into a gravy for the best poutine you’ll taste this side of Canada.
In place of Slim Jims, there are local asparagus spears so large and meaty they could karate chop you in half before stepping into a pool of perfectly seasoned beer batter that transforms them into light-as-air tempura that’s served with a fiery sriracha aioli. In favor of those ubiquitous taquitos, you’ll find tortillas made with heirloom corn sourced from Oaxaca, Mexico.
“Corn isn’t indigenous to the U.S.,” says Andrae Bopp, chef and owner of this culinary wonderland. “It’s from Mexico, so we go to the source.” He and his crew nixtamalize the corn, which means they boil it with lime, grind it and make their own tortillas, which become the base for tacos that rival anything you’ll find stateside, and – dare I say it – even Mexico. The short rib and pear salsa taco is a particularly big crowd pleaser.
Other standouts include the Northwest-raised bacon cheddar brisket burger on a from-scratch potato bun made with roasted potatoes, which are milled in-house; local fried green tomato po’ boys; and a grilled corn salad with aioli, parmesan, lime, cilantro and cayenne inspired by Mexican street corn.
Will you find your typical gas station hot dogs at Andrae’s? No, but you will find the AK-47, which is wrapped with bacon and topped with poutine; and the Guadalajara, which is bacon-wrapped and deep-fried, topped with homemade pico, panela cheese, crema and mustard.
You’ll also find gorgeous local produce, like Walla Walla sweet onions, cherries and strawberries – which grow courtesy of eastern Washington’s endless stretches of sunshine and fertile land. Here, though, produce often takes a backseat to the wine, as Walla Walla has become one of the country’s most notable wine regions, with more than 120 wineries and 2,800 acres of grapes to keep curious oenophiles occupied.
So how did a gourmet restaurant wind up in a gas station in the middle of Washington wine country? Bopp – the former owner of a landscape and sprinkler business – decided to attend the French Culinary Institute in New York, and eventually worked in kitchens at acclaimed NYC spots such as Le Bernardin, Bouley and Balthazar. He opened his own contemporary French restaurant in Boise in 2004, and found himself buying a lot of wines from a then up-and-coming wine region in Washington called Walla Walla.
“It was 2007, and there was nothing going on in Walla Walla food-wise,” he recalls. “Our lease in Boise ended, so we decided to move here and see what we could do. We started our food truck in 2010, and were doing Outstanding in the Field dinners before they were doing it, catering in the vineyards. There wasn’t anyone else doing this when we started.”
He frequently parked his food truck in front of the Cenex station, and when the manager saw how popular it was, with people lining up for food every day, he asked if they wanted to take over the deli space inside.
“I walked in, and they had a hot dog roller, a microwave and a hot case,” Bopp says. “They told me they’d build a kitchen, and I could design it. I talked to a lot of people who knew about business, and there wasn’t a single person who thought moving into a gas station was a good idea. I did research, and there were no examples of what we were doing anywhere else. I had a river boat gambler mentality, and always liked being that guy who isn’t doing the norm, so I said I’d take the space. Everyone who knew me thought it was a mistake.”
The rest, as they say, is hot case history.
What started as the first food truck in a small eastern Washington town evolved into its first destination dining gas station restaurant. Bopp is amazed by his success, but admits to having enjoyed the uncertain journey.
“When we came to Walla Walla, I said yes to doing something different,” Bopp says. “We caught the attention of a lot of people, but we don’t have anything cool or hip about what we’re doing. We don’t have a music or cocktail program. We’re in a gas station, and all we have is our food.”