By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"We've got to raise them," Parker sighs after making the rounds with Nella, one of Fuel City's two managers and the only one who speaks English. At 22, Parker looks and acts like the kind of kid every man who owns a big house in Highland Park would love to have, with his clean-shaven face, close-cropped haircut, soft-spoken tone and neatly pressed Polo shirt. But there's no question about who really is in charge. On yet another hot afternoon, before gas prices take a big swing upward, Parker displays his ability to obey mildly worded commands while working alongside his dad.
"Where are those shirts?" John calls over to Parker, who's digging around on wooden shelves upstairs. On the retail floor below, girls work the cash register in black leather chaps and specially made tie-dyed Fuel City T-shirts that advertise their signature tacos and smiling faces. John wants me to have one, grinning with the excitement of a man about to spit out the punch line to a joke he believes is particularly funny.
"They say tacos or somethin'," John directs to Parker. He is in the middle of talking about what a melting pot his gas station is when his phone rings. "Tink-a-tink-a-tink-tink, tong tong tong!" chimes out in a cheery, metallic version of the stereotypical Chinese jingle Americans sing when they perform fake bows and the more uncouth slant their eyes with their forefingers.
While his dad switches his phone off, Parker finds the shirt. It says "Famous for TACOS" on the back, and John nearly giggles, he's so proud of his handiwork. If John hadn't told me, reluctantly, for fear of tipping off competitors, that he figures he's the second biggest retail seller of beer in North Texas, it'd be easy to believe his cool, dark Fuel City upstairs offices are a West or South Texas ranch house. An embroidered pillow sits on a leather couch. It reads, "Wranglin', ropin' and ridin' done here."
Which is not entirely accurate—mainly it's sellin', sellin' and sellin'—but that's just because, with the combo ranch, restaurant and rest stop, John has created a monster of Texan proportion.
"I try to be low-key about everything," John says, after pointing out the stuffed head of Bandit the longhorn on the wall. At 105 inches from horn tip to horn tip, there wasn't much about Bandit that was low-key, not even the way he died. Kicking the bucket on a Friday afternoon on the acreage behind Fuel City is the equivalent of performing Romeo's final scene in front of a sold-out Broadway audience.
On Fridays, John figures, he gets around 3,000 customers at the store, many of them occupying the check-cashing line that snakes from the air conditioning-blasted inside to the steaming parking lot outside. Fuel City's sliding doors fight a losing battle between the two, swishing helplessly against the heat. Bandit the longhorn had to be put down on a Friday afternoon just a few weeks ago, at prime check-cashing time.
John couldn't do the job himself, so he hired a guy to shoot the cow and chop him up for stuffing.
"I had a headless cow at 5 p.m. in downtown Dallas," John says, half-wistful, half-amused. But he doesn't sound surprised, not at all. Fuel City isn't the kind of place where anyone gets surprised and certainly not on a weekend afternoon. There's too much indication that, between the guy in the parking lot singing Tejano karaoke, the pool model slapping on bumper stickers in the drive-through and the free-for-all that is the pump-filled parking lot, anything can happen at Fuel City.
I wanted to experience the place properly, not just have a vague and blurry recollection of handing over a few dollars for those signature cilantro-filled tacos at 2:15 a.m. That's when the watery-eyed drinkers show up, and Fuel City specializes in catering to their booze-fueled cravings as they pull in from Uptown in Land Rovers, from Oak Cliff in shiny Cavaliers and from everywhere else in every other kind of car you might imagine. It's not the best way to see a place, even if it is the most gastronomically satisfying.
No, the full-on Fuel City experience happens on sunny summer Friday or Saturday afternoons, when people line up their cars 10-deep to buy cases of beer from the drive-through. With a wink, Benda told me I could put on a swimsuit and join pool model Jazmin for an afternoon of smiling and waving at customers. "And bring some of your girlfriends," Benda suggested. "Y'all can hang out out there and rub lotion on each other."
Since my girlfriends are not the kind of girlfriends who go for that kind of thing, what with their not being porn stars or contestants on reality TV shows set on a beach, I recruited Kaitlin Ingram, the Dallas Observer's own editorial assistant, to come along. I suspected I would need assisting, and I hoped it wouldn't be with chewing out overly forward customers who wanted to get a sample of my merchandise.
The Fuel City pool can be seen by anyone inside the store through a giant half-glass wall on the eastern end, where the drive-through line snakes by. It can also be seen by nearly everyone else in the city of Dallas, since the I-30/I-35 split happens just a few hundred yards away, just beyond the diesel pumps where truckers pull up to replenish their tanks and, possibly, their spank banks.