By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Could have been the friendly atmosphere, or it could have been the oppressive heat, but after a while, I started feeling pretty good about the whole thing, in fact. The guys in the drive-through didn't seem to mind my thighs, even compared with the shapely stems on Jazmin and Kaitlin, and winked and waved at all of us in turn. In fact, when I got home, I felt downright hot. Horrible about contributing to the objectification of women, but hot nonetheless.
Before customers walk away happy and satisfied, however, chances are they walked up hungry for Fuel City tacos. That's how most people—the ones who aren't the regular truckers and construction workers who make up most of the population of Fuel City—find out about the place. At any hour of the day, nearly everyone walking away from the store has a white plastic bag in hand, filled with Styrofoam take-out boxes of barbacoa, pastor or fajita tacos. The picadillo tacos feature spicy ground beef and potato, and all the varieties come with onions, cilantro and fresh lime. It's a third-generation recipe, and a group of women work in the tiny kitchen attached to the store 24 hours a day, handing sacks through sliding windows.
For the truck-driving instructors at Schneider National, bringing their students to Fuel City for tacos and a cold drink is tradition.
Charles is one such student, a top-heavy guy in a camo-print hunting shirt brought to Fuel City by his instructor, Mike, a rail of a man who looks like he stepped straight out of King of the Hill. Charles is awed by the station's sheer size and scope; he is from St. Louis.
"It's diff-ernt here," he concedes, laughing with his mouth wide open, revealing that he has almost all his front teeth. "It's inter-sting." On a Friday afternoon, the Schneider folks stand out on the corner by the pool, smoking cigarettes and scarfing down tacos before heading back on the road. The mixmaster in rush hour is exactly the kind of place they like their driving trainees to be.
Sunday afternoons are a little slower, but the after-church crowd keeps the taco stand, with a window that opens out on to the front sidewalk, plenty busy. Hustling into the store to get lunch, her Bluetooth earpiece blinking, a woman hollers back to her lollygagging son, "Trey! Get over here!"
"But my shoes are too small!" whines the growing teenager, who apparently hadn't bothered to put his dress shoes on in a few months. He shuffles in sock feet into the store with his mom, past a couple of sheriff's officers carrying cups.
"She got arrested for prostitution," one officer says to the other, not talking about the mother and son. "And he got arrested for parole violation." It's hard to tell whether they're talking shop or just gossiping about friends.
A few feet away from the taco window is a woman named Elisa and her corn cart, "La Esperanza." Elisa makes cups of hot, buttery corn smothered in salsa, sour cream and cheese, just like they sell on the streets of Mexico City. She's been out there nearly every day since Fuel City opened. There's nothing particularly special about her corn, she says, "It's just a Mexican dish." The secret, though, is in her salsa, which she makes from her own recipe with cayenne pepper and lime juice. "But nobody wants to say exactly how they make it."
Streaming across the sidewalk, people, rich and poor and of all races stop by for a cup of Elisa's finest or an order of the third-generation tacos while they cash their checks, pick up a cooler's worth of beer or a pack of cigarettes.
A good cup of corn, like a tasty taco and a pretty girl in a swimsuit, knows no racial boundaries. Five minutes at Fuel City, and anyone with taste buds would crave a cold beer and a snack to take the edge off the rising total waiting for them back at the gas pump. Oh yeah. Right. Almost forgot. Should have mentioned that—people also go to Fuel City for gas.