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Gilbert: Whoa Nellie Deli

Two summers ago, after my wife dropped our daughter and me off in Yosemite National Park to go hiking, the car needed gas, badly. She told me later, with great excitement, that she stopped at a gas mart just outside the park, filled up, went inside, and noticed a bunch of framed newspaper and magazine articles on the wall raving about the minimart’s snack counter, its fabulous food, and celebrated chef. Yes, chef!

She said the menu looked good, and decided to give it a try. She ordered Ahi Sashimi, served with seaweed salad and sushi rice. She said it was superb.

At a gas station minimart!

Well, last summer I went hiking again in the High Sierras, this time with a friend. After our hike, we got out of the mountains and back to our car in that general region, and so we decided to drive sixty miles on a road flat and straight as an arrow to check out her story and this minimart dining Mecca.

We found it overlooking the flat desert that stretches out toward Nevada. Just below was Mono Lake, round and sapphire blue, with a round island in the middle. Outside the gas mart, there were concrete picnic tables and American flags snapping loudly in the wind.

Inside, along one wall, behind the Yosemite sweatshirts, tee shirts, hats, beer coolers, key chains, and postcards; candy bars, cold beer, fishing tackle, camping supplies, groceries, magazines, moccasins, and more, we found the snack bar and its bucking bronco logo: the Whoa Nellie Deli. House specials included, along with more familiar fare, Buffalo Meatloaf, “extra lean grilled cowboy-style (whatever that means) with a port wine au jus, garlic mashed potatoes & veggies.” There were Lobster Taquitos, Pork Tenderloin served with apricot wild berry glaze; St. Louis Style BBQ Ribs, Ragin’ Cajun Chicken Jambalaya, and - there it was - Ahi Sashimi! Carrot cake, chocolate cake, and cheesecake all beckoned from a display case, and behind the counter Espresso, Cappuccino, Latte, and Mocha coffee, as well as margaritas and local beer, both by the glass or pitcher.

Two orders of Ahi Sashimi later, we split an order of fish tacos, one with mango salsa, one with ginger coleslaw. The carrot cake and beer were also excellent.

Turns out that this spot is pretty well-known in California, but for those of us from back East, it was a discovery. “Eureka!” indeed.

For me, the joy was not just in the delicious food, but in its juxtaposition with the unexpected and incongruous setting; the setting wasn’t a drawback, but part of the draw. It was a pleasure to find, amidst America’s uninspiring “you could be anywhere” sameness of national brands and retailing, amidst so much mediocrity, a local gas station franchise of a national brand that goes against expectations, one with an imaginative chef and crew committed to exceptional quality, even excellence.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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