The Best Little Icehouse in Texas
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.
"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.
When we arrived, Jazmin was already hard at work sitting under an umbrella and wearing playfully unbuttoned denim shorts that showcased her various tattoos, most noticeably the joker's mask that stretched down her left thigh. I'd obtained a tasteful black one-piece for the occasion, but Kaitlin went the Lolita route with polka-dotted bikini bottoms, pink kitten heels and an orange triangle top.
The pool girl is a vital part of the Fuel City aesthetic, providing "a little something for the guys to look at" when they come through the store, in Benda's vision. "They get some beers, and they get to see some pretty girls." Ours was a task vital to the continued success and laid-back aura of Fuel City. So the three of us started off with a little light waving, Kaitlin in her dots, me in black and Jazmin in ink, all secured safely in the pool area behind an iron fence.
After a few minutes, Jazmin wandered into the parking lot, where a Hispanic guy in a cowboy hat had been setting up a little black trailer with multi-colored disco lights. She returned with a blue binder. The trailer was equipped with speakers for Tejano karaoke, and the man in the cowboy hat wanted us to sing.
"Then we won't be in the cage anymore!" Kaitlin exclaimed, gesturing to the fence that stood between us and cars full of Fuel City patrons. But once you're standing nearly naked in 100-degree heat in a parking lot in the middle of a major American city, you lose the right to act shy, coy or anything other than extremely enthusiastic.
While the Tejano man searched for our selection, Elvis' version of "Hound Dog," two teenagers sipping big, sweaty cups of Coke walked up to the fence with the kind of confidence people have approaching the lion cage at the zoo because they know there's a barrier in place. One of them was clicking away with a digital camera. For a brief moment I was tempted to lay into the kid about whether or not it was appropriate to just walk up to a woman and take her picture like she might be some kind of exotic animal on display, but then I realized I was standing next to a pool in a gas station in a swimsuit, and I was supposed to be acting sexy for the visual enjoyment of the heterosexual male customer base.
"How old are y'all?" the shorter one drawled, his straw half in his mouth.
"I'm 23," I said, and the boys looked a little crestfallen when Kaitlin said she was all of 22. I wasn't sure if they wanted us to be older or younger. "How old are y'all?"
"We're 14," said the taller one, pointing to their chests, which they puffed up, probably unconsciously, for effect. Their names were Randy and Josh, and they were up from Waco, with Randy's dad, planning to go to the monster truck rally in Fort Worth that night. The boys made an excellent audience for our "Hound Dog" performance in the parking lot, where Kaitlin and I displayed for all to hear why we'd wisely chosen journalism over singing careers.
As we finished, Randy's dad walked up with a sack full of tacos. "These boys just got their hormones, you know," he explained from beneath a wiry, bushy goatee and red, white and blue baseball cap.
"I'm Rufus," he said, shaking my hand. Of course he was. Of course Rufus was from Waco and on his way to the monster truck rally. Men named Rufus wouldn't be caught dead anywhere else. As they headed back to the car, Rufus called out, "You just made these boys' day!"
A half-hour later we were making grown men's days out by the drive-through, asking to put bumper stickers on cars before they drove away, heavy with cases of Bud Light, Corona or Coors stuffed in next to fancy sound systems or baby car seats. Much of the time, those baby seats were occupied, and I tried to act family-friendly in my swimsuit and platform wedge heels. No easy task considering some of the looks we were getting were something far, far from G-rated.
One such gazer pulled up in a teal sedan, winking and waving at us while his toddler daughter emulated him from the backseat. Instinctually, I waved back and smiled at the little girl who giggled and grinned even bigger. I was struck with a premonition.
Ten or 11 years down the line, that little girl might be standing in front of her bathroom mirror, wondering why she was so obsessed with makeup and always looking pretty to get attention from boys. And she would have no idea that, years before, she'd sat in a car seat and watched her dad make winky faces at women in swimsuits. Would we be responsible for lowering delicate self-esteem 10 years into the future?
Giving the little girl my best Hollywood smile and pageant wave, I whispered, "Oh God, don't aspire to this." There was a tirade welling up inside me about the objectification of women, and how we were aiding the denigration of female sexuality, merely bowing down to the male ideal of what defines sexy. But nobody there wanted to hear a tirade; they just wanted to hear a reasonable total for their order and a friendly "Hola!" from a girl with no pants on. And so I shut up and waved and said "Hola!" with no pants on.
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.
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