Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
The business world turns. The mom and pops lost out to the retail chains and big box stores. The "service" stations of old went the way of self-serve, and the small leftover stations were left longing for customers when the convenience store chains with 18 pumping stations took over.
In their second lives, those vacant gas stations in major cities have turned into popular restaurants — witness The Fold Botanos & Bar and its fun atmosphere in Riverdale.
And for yet another new life for the vacant downtown filling station, witness The Food Truck Stop @ Station 801, which opened Jan. 19. Everything from the incomparable Asian fusion to beignets, from Mexican and Cuban specialties on the go to tasty barbecue, or fish, or chicken, or gourmet hot dogs, is available daily for lunch, all with a clean sitting area to chow down where cars once got their oil changed. You can't spot a drop of hydraulic fluid anywhere, just tables and seats and a refrigerator full of soft drinks or water (where they even let you buy on the honor system).
Oh, and when your meal is done, it's just a few steps to Brown Sugar Bake Shop, the one permanent store on the premises. Brown Sugar moved from its previous River Market district storefront just a couple of weeks back.
A few pointers, if we may: Patience is key. If you've experienced food truck cuisine, you already know that some vendors know how to take an order and get the food out quicker than others. Some trucks, when we visited, were even one-person operations. Also, it's loud around the trucks, thanks to their portable generators. I felt like I was yelling my order and having to get the vendor to repeat what he or she was saying to me. You have to stay close enough to hear (or see) when your order is up, but not too close that others can't order.
The days we went were nice to be out and about; we wondered how chaotic it might be on a rainy midday.
Also, food trucks only bring what they expect to sell, and when it's gone, you might be out of luck.
Such was the case for some folks behind us in line at Black Hound Bar-B-Q. They wanted beef, but after 1 p.m. it was long gone. However, had they wanted pork, they'd have been happy. We know we were.
Black Hound reminds us of Sims Bar-B-Que (for all we know, there may be a connection, though we couldn't get that information out of the vendor on a recent Friday). The pork shoulder was piled high (and we mean, PILED HIGH) for a $6 sandwich on two slices of Texas toast. The sauce was very Sims-like — vinegary yet sweet, perhaps some mustard, but definitely spicy with red pepper. A Diet coke and a small bag of barbecue potato chips (choices of chips were limited) and our bill came to $7.75.
When we returned a few days later, Black Hound was off barking somewhere else, but The Southern Gourmasian was in its place in the spot nearest Chester Street. We were earlier than before, but still not early enough to get the fried rice before it had sold out. No mind, as the to-die-for spicy chicken and rice dumplings in broth were still available ($9).
We offset it two ways: with a sugar-free root beer available from the Gourmasian truck and curried vegetables and ginger rice ($8) from the Southern Salt food truck. Southern Salt has quite a variety of offerings, from Thai shrimp tacos to a classic American cheeseburger and is there every day, under one of the awnings that reach out over the former fuel pumps.
We decided the meal wouldn't be complete without a huge, rich chocolate chip cookie ($1.75) from Brown Sugar. All told, we topped $20 with this lunch extravagance.
Like any filling station, there are bathrooms around the side of the building, and so far there is one big-screen TV at one end of the indoor eating area. We didn't know how to get anyone to change the channel. From what we gathered, though, Station 801 is gradually working out the kinks in making this a nice dining experience, a good getaway from the nearby offices.
A typical recent Tuesday lineup of vendors, along with Black Hound, Southern Gourmasian and Southern Salt, included Rick's Beignets, Hot Rod Weiners ($5 on up for gourmet dogs), Lupita's Mexican, El Cubano Loco and Steve's Fish and Chicken.
We might suggest better signage — in fact, a large sign on the burnt-orange-painted building should be the next improvement so Interstate 630 drivers can better see the place, located right off an exit/entrance ramp of I-630 and on heavily traveled Chester.
The Food Truck Stop
@ Station 801
801 S. Chester St.
Early bird gets the worm, or in this case a better shot at all the offerings from the vendors. Several of the vendors rotate among other food truck sites, so check Station 801's Facebook page for the daily lineup.
11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays.
Soft drinks and bottled water are sold by the vendors as well as inside Station 801. Credit cards accepted by most vendors.