It's 2 a.m. and the gut demands sustenance. The late-night meal is as important a meal as any, especially when the incorporation of certain mind-altering substances are at play, such as vodka. The only thing to do is to follow the fluorescent glow of the nearest convenience store or gas station.
Ask anyone what their favorite fried bologna sandwich is, or even chicken and waffles, and they might not even know. But people know late-night convenience store food. It is the tie that binds us. Show me someone who claims they've never eaten gas station fare, and I bet you'll find a glove box stuffed with Rap Snacks potato chips wrappers.
Here are the top 10 best gas station foods of all time, ranked, with special attention to Minnesota brands (though not exclusively, because cravings know no boundaries).
10. An entire pint of ice cream, preferably Häagen Dazs
When a serious ice cream crave emerges, only a full pint will do. Häagen Dazs is still the gold standard, if only because it makes you feel slightly elegant while hoovering 1,160 calories and 56 grams of fat, which is of course a single serving.
9. Jack Link's or Slim Jims
When the Camry goes careening into the Super America lot, it’s often propelled by a body’s desperate plea for protein. Only when you spot a shrink-wrapped pack of heavily salted meat do you know what you’ve come for. Jack Link's seems slightly healthier with its approximate shape of real meat, but if you’re truly following your lizard brain wants, opt for a Slim Jim, which is beef, yes, but also “mechanically separated chicken, lactic acid starter culture, dextrose, salt, sodium nitrite, and hydrolyzed soy.” Never watch the meat sticks get made.
8. Pump nacho cheese and chips
With a flick of the wrist, I can control how much cheese I get. (None of this "$2.99 for another single-serve portion.") When a concessions guy doles out nacho cheese, he tends to conserve like he's serving liquid gold instead of chemically processed whey. But ideally, you want more cheese than chips. When you run out of chips, run your finger around the container as a finisher.
Variation: buy a bag of Cheetos, open on site, and pump some cheese into the bag. An insider-tipster claims chopsticks are the key to this maneuver.
Minnesota’s own frozen pizza brand has saved lives. Any good neighborhood bar without a full kitchen has a Heggie’s pizza oven and a stack of pies in the deep freeze. The brand has garnered such a cult following, that even big-time top chef Doug Flicker has attached his name to it. His pie is the El Jefe, with black olives, jalapeño and chorizo. A Heggie’s means a mere 14-minute window to a more-sober you.
6. "Wheel of Death" hot dogs
Only the bold need apply. Because it’s a hot dog and it’s hot. The only problem you could run into here is that it might be old. I think most places try to throw them away if they are. But then some places don’t. So it’s hit or miss. But as far as a hot dog goes, a gas station is a reliable place to get one.
These were invented in 1968 by local cookbook maven Beatrice Ojakangas for one Jeno Paulucci, a Duluth entrepreneur who owned Chinese food producer Chun King. You know the rest. Pizza meets egg roll in a marriage six-year-olds and drunken minds have been indebted to for decades to come.
This is potato chip of the cracker world. You cannot eat just one. Your anti-junk food mom would buy these because even she cannot resist the call of the cheesy cracker. You can’t have a bad time when the red-orange box is on the table. I’m a purist for original flavor, but lovers of newfangled variations like "Grooves" and "Extra Toasty" make strong and convincing arguments.
3. Earl’s Cheese Puffs
Many experienced snackers are still woefully unfamiliar with Earl’s. The Shakopee-based company makes popcorn (plain, cheese, and caramel, or a blend of all three if you like), but their crowning achievement is the cheese puff, making ordinary puffs bow down in inferiority. This is Minnesota’s niche snack brand, what Zapp’s are to New Orleans.
2. Cool Ranch Doritos & Top the Tater
Quintessential. It’s unclear who first stuck a Dorito into this essential Minnesota-based baked potato topper that approximates sour cream with chives and “seasonings.” Likely scenario: late ’80s when the blue bag flavor reached its crescendo. Teenagers alone in kitchen. Nirvana achieved. Derivatives include original Doritos and potato chips with ridges. But TTT is non-negotiable.
My one true gas station love. I was quite literally raised up on this Minnesota brand snack-wich. When mom was too busy to cook or even head to McDonald's, it was a Chuckwagon in the Cutlass Supreme for din. A bun that teases the line between liquid and solid when microwaved, but then peppered with poppy seeds for class. Four-point-five ounces of quality “meats and cheeses,” think hot ham with liquid cheese in a plastic pouch, and pure bliss.