By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The line of cars stretches a few hundred feet back from the window where a clerk in a tie-dyed shirt is handing a case of Corona over to a guy in a low-rider pickup truck. Standing somewhere down the line between a Kia and a Ford is Jazmin, who wears rubber flip-flops to shield her feet from the hot concrete. Jazmin's got a big wad of white and red bumper stickers in her hand, and she waves them casually in front of her bikini-clad chest whenever a guy pulls up with his window rolled down. She says something quietly in Spanish, or sometimes, in English.
"Can I put this sticker on your car?'
As if any man in his right mind is going to say no to a skinny girl with half-bleached, half-magenta hair wearing short shorts with the waistband unbuttoned. But some do, usually the ones with fancy Lincolns or tricked-out Escalades. But the rest are happy to bear the adhesive brand she hands out for hours every weekend: "Fuel City: The RANCH in Downtown Dallas!"
Urban ranch, gas station, taco stand, Tejano karaoke bar, truck stop, whatever you want to call it: The sign on the front says "Fuel City."
If Jazmin had the inclination to look out into the distance, she'd see Interstate 35. A dry green and brown hillside covered with parched grass leads up to the highway, bottled up on a heavy, humid Saturday afternoon with cars headed south to Oak Cliff or maybe Austin or Brownsville. Nobody seems to be keen on heading north, toward Oklahoma City.
To Jazmin's east stretches I-30, a clogged roadway just south of downtown that eventually ends up in the crowded forests of East Texas, where there are more pine trees than cars. For a little ways west, I-30 trudges straight past Fort Worth toward El Paso, merging with I-20 and then continuing as I-10 long before the cacti start outnumbering the automobiles.
In the midst of these many crossroads, ooching up to the downtown Dallas mixmaster, where nothing about the highway traffic flow can even kindly be called masterful, is Fuel City, the gas station-slash-ranch-cum-beer barn where Jazmin and 30 other workers spend 24 hours a day doling out gas, tacos, cups of special-recipe buttered corn and the usual chips and soft drinks anyone could expect from a Texas-sized roadside oasis.
The ranch, which has no proper ranch house, cow hands or any other rural accoutrements, is more of a yard than a spread, stretching out for a couple of acres toward the highway and the Trinity River. It does have longhorn cattle and a couple of donkeys employed to keep the coyotes away. Donkeys don't get along with the canine family. If the speeding cars, Latinas in bikinis and truckers in 18-wheelers don't scare the coyotes away, the donkeys will.
In fact, the donkey-coyote relationship is perhaps the only one at Fuel City that is less than ideal. Everyone else seems to get along just fine. That there's a sparkling blue swimming pool beside the store, manned on weekends by scantily clad girls like Jazmin who get paid $7 an hour to smile and wave at customers, only helps engender that sense of camaraderie.
"This is a melting pot," says the white-mustachioed owner of Fuel City, a man named John Benda. "All the races come together here." The tacos, made from a recipe generations old, and gallons of $2.59 unleaded gasoline aren't picky about who takes 'em home, so long as someone does. That's the attitude that makes Fuel City the kind of place people stop by at 3 p.m. on Friday, 2 a.m. on Saturday or 8 a.m. on Wednesday, if they're really craving a breakfast taco.
At Fuel City, just off Industrial Boulevard and I-35, they don't just sell beer and gas and something to fill your belly from here to the state line. They sell Styrofoam takeout boxes of what Texas Monthly has named the best tacos in Texas, a chance to glimpse six longhorn cows chomping lazily on downtown grass and what is quite possibly the finest uninterrupted close-up view of Dallas. In fact, Fuel City is probably Texas' best view of Texas. And that's just the way Benda intended it.
Benda opened the 8,000-square-foot, 8-acre Fuel City on December 15, 1999, when his kids were still kids. He'd already spent more than 10 years in the gas station business, but he wanted something a little snazzier. He wanted a place where people would "have an experience." From the ranch to the tacos to the beer-filled refrigerator that stretches throughout the entire back of the store, Benda says he designed it all himself. "I wanted to make it part of Texas," he says. A graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School here in Dallas and later a student at UT-Pan American in Edinburg, Benda is a Texas man through and through. And so he thought he'd build a little Texas downtown.
When the store first opened, Benda's kids were years away from working the Fuel City cash register or taking a job helping run the place, as his twin daughters and son Parker do now. Nearly eight years later, on a Friday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, Parker learns that gas prices have gone up 11 cents per gallon. Fuel City always tries to keep the cheapest prices in town. He must simultaneously compete and keep prices decent.