COLUMBIA — Gas station food gets a weird wrap. Images of warm, glowing hot dogs spinning on a conveyor belt and lines of slushie machines are the typical images. On the other side of the globe, though, gas station food is a culture unto itself. In Japan, 7-Elevens, Lawsons and Family Mart provide incredibly delicious foods, like tonkatsu chicken sandwiches and ramen, at classic convenience store prices.
Despite the negative reputation, there actually is a deep culture of gas station food in the South. From small towns to outer rims of the city, many kitchens are tucked back and hidden away from plain sight. A couple of years ago, I scoured stores around the city and found two places that I couldn’t imagine living without: Jimmy’s Mart (9900 Two Notch Rd.), with iconic hot dogs and one of the last places you can find a catfish stew, and Roy’s Grille (711 W Main St. in Lexington), where Chris Williams quietly slings some of the best fall-off-the-bone ribs and smoky barbecue you can find in the city.
But I only scratched the surface of what was out there. From newcomers to an iconic stop down US-378, we uncover a few more places to add to your Midland’s gas station food tour.
Tasty Tikka (10401 Broad River Rd., Irmo)
11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. facebook.com/TastyTikka.
The Royal Farm Shell gas station sits in the middle of a busy business corridor. There’s already a bit of a built-in appeal to this particular stop for workers in the area, as a Sub Station II is tucked inside. Any day of the week, a No. 13 with extra oil and vinegar could take care of anyone’s cravings, but just off to another side of this combination convenience store is a cooler featuring an unexpected array of Indian food by a business called Tasty Tikka.
Is it weird to talk about a business operating essentially from a cooler? Maybe, but the food is certainly worth the trouble.
From basic things, like chicken curry and biryani, to vegetarian dishes, like potato curry with naan, there’s a bit of something for everyone here. The chicken biryani in particular is worth a visit, its aromatic spices doing a lot of heavy lifting in the otherwise simple dish.
Mimie’s Delect-A-Bowls (1002 Rabbit Run, Hopkins)
11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday. facebook.com/Mdelectabowls.
There’s folks who open a restaurant in a gas station. Then there’s Kankou Mimie Holmes and her family, who went a step further.
“It’s amazing, she opened a gas station,” said Michael Dantzler. Dantzler is a photographer, community organizer, and resident of Eastover in Lower Richland.
“I don't know many Black-owned gas stations in Columbia; that's phenomenal for one. For the food, it's a fusion of African food with healthy American food.”
Dantzler said healthy choices are hard to come by in the Lower Richland area. Mimie’s Delect-A-Bowls is one of the few places you can find a wealth of choices that feel good.
Mimie’s restaurant blends her West African and Caribbean background with the ever-popular grain bowl to create big, bold flavors. An example is her popular jerk pork bowls, full of rice, lettuce, tomato, African slaw, cilantro and more, with a drizzle of spicy harissa or mango sauce.
Most popular of all is her old-fashioned cinnamon roll, in regular and vegan form, a favorite when she sets up at downtown Columbia’s weekly Soda City Market. These massive, fluffy rolls are so popular they often sell out online well before anyone has a chance to get them in person.
Dantlzer said the jerk chicken is always his go-to recommendation for first-timers, with Kankou’s spicy harissa sauce and a cold, refreshing hibiscus drink on the side.
Mr. Bunky’s Market (10441 Garners Ferry Rd., Eastover)
Open daily. Breakfast 7 a.m.-10:30 a.m. Lunch and dinner 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. facebook.com/Mr.BunkysMarket.
Mr. Bunky’s isn’t just another gas station and restaurant. It’s the mother of all gas stations and restaurant stops. Located just a half mile from the McEntire Air National Guard on Sumter Highway, the iconic building has long provided a wealth of goods for the area. From bait for local fishing to fresh meat from the surrounding farming community to a huge wall of local South Carolina products, Mr. Bunky’s has just about everything one could possibly need.
But it’s the restaurant that really brings the business to life, and what’s made it such a popular stop for locals working at the National Guard or passing through for a hike at Poinsett State Park. Bunky’s serves food all day, starting with biscuit sandwiches or loaded trays of food featuring everything from grits to omelettes to french toast.
Lunch and dinner is really where Mr. Bunky shines, though. There’s Southern staples, like golden fried chicken, hearty angus burgers, and cubed steak — just really hearty, well-done food that’s soul-satisfying any time of day.
Best of all are the enormous trays of fried quail, fresh from Manchester Farms down the road. There’s lots of ways to prepare quail, from low to high bar, but for me, Bunky’s version is the best. For a mere $3.25 per bird, you can go to town on some of the juicest, tender quail you’ll find anywhere.