Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Regardless of where you go to eat, you always enter with expectations. You stroll inside Eric Ripert's Le Bernadain, Thomas Keller's French Laundry — you know darn well there are certain expectations that had better to be met. You pull around the corner at the Sonic drive-thru, you expect ... well, you pretty much know what to expect, no need to spell it out here. But occasionally, when we're fortunate, we're taken by surprise. We leave a restaurant surprisingly pleased, expectations exceeded, with a glowing sense of satisfaction beaming inside of us.
When you've determined to eat in a gas station, your expectations are often quite low. Maybe a few bags of M&Ms, the occasional stale snack cake, the microwave burrito with the eternally frozen center.
But over at the Shell Station on the corner of I-30 and Geyer Springs road, you'll find something to shout about. Herein lies Gino's Full Belly Deli — an easy-to-miss, classic American grill serving familiar fare in big portions at entirely reasonable prices.
You won't want to miss Gino's fine rendition of the Philly Cheesesteak ($6.99). The formula is familiar, the ingredients expected, but it's a sandwich prepared correctly. A soft white roll is toasted and dressed with mounds of thinly sliced ribeye. Before going on the sandwich, the beef is given a quick sear on the flattop, imparting a few crispy bits around the edges to the otherwise soft, tender steak. Intermixed you'll find sauteed, sweet bell peppers, tomatoes, and golden onions. Finally, a generous slathering of melted Swiss cheese rests atop the concoction. It's full of rich, fatty flavor.
Then there's the Chicken Philly Cheese Fries ($7.99). One look at this behemoth of starch and fat is enough to make weaker hearts cower in fear. Throw away all thoughts of reasonable caloric intake and suggested daily dietary needs. This thing will squash the entire food pyramid in one swift, mighty blow. But they are good enough to make you not care. Here's the winning formula: crispy, thick-cut fries, piled high with chunks of chicken breast, grilled peppers and onions. On top of all this lies a double blanket of cheddar cheese sauce and melted Swiss.
Starve yourself for a week, pop a few extra Lipitor, run a marathon before visiting, slip your cardiologist a cool $100 bill under the table — do whatever you have to do to enjoy these glorious fries without guilt or shame. You'll cherish every second of it.
We've also enjoyed Gino's Patty Melt Burger ($2.99). All of their burgers come in quarter-pound, half-pound, and 1-pound sizes. We opted for the more reasonable (yet still sizable) quarter-pound burger. In the patty melt, you'll find two nicely toasted slices of white bread, filled with a juicy, tender beef patty loaded with melted Swiss cheese, a slather of Thousand Island dressing and caramelized onions. It's messy and glorious, dripping with grease and dressing, but it's a real pleasure to consume. We were, however, less impressed with our meatball sub ($5.99). Again, size was not an issue; the sandwich could have sunk a small ship. Gino's slices 4-5 large meatballs in half and crams them into a roll. The sub comes doused in a healthy dose of marinara sauce, with a generous portion of Swiss and mozzarella. Our complaints were primarily with the meatballs. They were obviously of the pre-frozen variety, likely reheated and thrown into the sandwich. They were slightly mushy and underseasoned, and we'd definitely pass on this sandwich at our next visit.
Surely, part of the Gino's charm lies in the fact that it's surprisingly good food inside a gas station, but remove it from its humble home and the food still stands on its own. It's working man's food — cheap and familiar, with portions large enough to satisfy even the most impressive appetites.