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Gas stations - I'm not talking hot dogs sweating on metal rollers or slices of greasy pizza under a heat lamp. I'm talking about the surprise gourmet foods popping up behind counters - Indian fusion, barbecue, taquerias. Gigi Douban got a taste in Alabama.
GIGI DOUBAN, BYLINE: It's just after 6 a.m., but inside this gas station, there's already a long line - mostly men, mostly Hispanic, coming in for the day's essentials - mostly tacos. A lot of these guys work construction jobs, and they're stocking up for breakfast and lunch, grabbing food and Red Bulls and coffee. Laura Morales is the manager here at the Hoover Encore Citgo near Birmingham.
LAURA MORALES: This is our tamales - pork tamales with banana leaves. This is a corn tamales - chicken. These are called empanadas.
DOUBAN: Squeezed in near the cash register there's a grill. Tiny kitchens like this are churning out good food at gas stations and convenience stores all over the country. There's Thai food at a gas station in Asheville, North Carolina, Korean barbecue attached to a convenience store in Atlanta - even a gastropub at a gas station in Bridgton, Maine.
JEFF LENARD: We've seen a real movement towards a variety of convenience stores, gas stations having upscale food.
DOUBAN: Jeff Lenard is spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores.
LENARD: And it's really part of the broader trend that you're seeing with food trucks, food carts, food in all kinds of places.
DOUBAN: He says selling gas doesn't bring stations a ton of money. They make maybe 50 cents on a fill up.
LENARD: They make their money inside the store. And when you have exceptional food that people will travel out of their way for, you create an entirely new profit center.
DOUBAN: Rahim Budhwani who owns this Citgo station says since he added Mexican food to the menu, sales at his store have gone up 12 percent. I asked Budhwani how exactly he sees this place.
RAHIM BUDHWANI: This is an Indian bodega is what I call it.
DOUBAN: Budhwani is Indian, and he's testing out some new dishes. This store is cramped, so when he throws some boneless chicken breast on the grill, the mix of spices fills up the whole place.
BUDHWANI: It's got cilantro, cumin seeds, a little yogurt, black pepper, garlic, ginger.
DOUBAN: He calls this the Maharajah Taco. It's topped with more cilantro, onions and a little bit of guacamole, and just like that, Indian fusion. Melvin Martinez is a regular. He's a painter and a pressure washer. His workday starts at 5 a.m. I caught him in between jobs grabbing a bite.
DOUBAN: What are you buying?
MELVIN MARTINEZ: Quesadilla (laughter).
DOUBAN: Steak quesadilla, that's breakfast?
MARTINEZ: Yeah (laughter).
DOUBAN: Do you come here every day?
MARTINEZ: Yeah, every day.
DOUBAN: He likes it because it's the closest thing to food from his home country, El Salvador. Plus, it's cheap - $4 and change for a couple of quesadillas and a coffee. There's no place to sit - Budhwani's thought about this, but he says it doesn't really matter. It's a gas station, so people are in a rush to leave anyway. For NPR News, I'm Gigi Douban in Birmingham.
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