& & by Mike Corrigan & & & &

Welcome to the convenience store. Convenient, yes -- always open and chock full of delicious, nutritious (?) and nourishing edibles. If you're dying for a quickie as you scurry off to work or looking for a way to satisfy an "after hours " craving, the convenience store is there, waiting to fill your nagging guts with something soothing.

In the interest of providing The Inlander readership with the most complete food coverage available anywhere, food critic Dave Starry and I set out to experience a cross section of the four principal convenience store food groups -- sugar, meat, buns and liquid cheese, in all their various combinations. So we drove around, bought stuff, consumed it and recorded the whole mess on audiotape. Hardy lads are we.

While 7-11 may not have been the first to combine gasoline with snacks and beer (was it 7-11, Circle K or AM/PM?), it sticks in the mind as the only source of the king daddy of sugary, slushy treats: the Slurpee. We visited the store on West Garland.

In the rotating hot dog cooker, we spied no less than four different kinds of wieners in various stages of decay. But with the exception of the really blistered one, they all looked pretty tasty. We headed over to the help-yourself Slurpee station only to find the coke dispenser broken.

Dave: "Coke is the best. "

Mike: "I don't think I even want one now. "

The remaining choices were "Sour Green, " grape and pineapple. Dave chose grape, and I filled my cup with pineapple.

We decided to sample a chili cheese dog and something called a "BBQ Chicken Bakery Stix, " a meat-and-sauce-encased-in-a-pastry-stick thing. The first choice was classic gut bomb, the latter, we felt, represented the latest in fast food technology. The cost of our entrees and two Slurpees: $3.21.

To the condiment bar.

Dave (incredulously): "Do you really want chili and cheese? "

We approached the machine labeled "Free Toppings, " pressed a button and witnessed the wonders of modern food science as our choice of chili sauce and/or liquid cheese oozed out all over. I was a little skeptical about the integrity of any meat sauce able to pass through such a dispenser at the mere press of a button.

Mysteriously, we were very hungry. Grumbling over the lack of onions at the condiment bar (chilidog with no onions?), we headed back to the car to begin our assessment -- and the grading process.

Dave: "This Slurpee is not bad. I would have preferred Coke but this is a decent substitute. It gets an A. You know, I'm not really into this cheese, though. What is this? "

Mike: "It looks like plastic. And it sticks to my face. Whoa, check this out [the letters BBC appear on the Bakery Stix]. It's tattooed. "

Dave: "It's branded. "

Mike: "And look at the high ratio of bread to meat filling. The whole thing's about as long as my middle finger. "

Dave: "You should get a picture of some of this stuff. It's more like evidence than lunch. "

Mike: "I give the Bakery Stix a D. The chili and cheese hot dog actually tasted really good -- C+. "

Dave: I would not eat the Bakery Stix again. But I'll give it a C -- just for the stick. Just a baked stick would have been better, though. And maybe some butter -- garlic butter. I'm gonna give the chili cheese dog a B-. I might have given it a B+, but we haven't established a curve yet. "

Next up was the swanky Hi-Co Village on Highway 2.

Mike: "We're looking at the future of convenience stores. "

Dave: "It's got a laundromat. "

The place was huge and loaded with enough snacks (including "Super Pretzels ") to make a junk food addict swoon. But it was the microwavables we were after. Burritos, chimichangas, sandwiches -- anything quickly and easily zapped to life in the handy "Menumaster Commercial Microwave Oven. " We withdrew a Don Miguel steak burrito and an "18 Wheeler " charbroiled beef sandwich from the cooler. For something to wash it all down with, we looked for a couple of goofy sodas (for whatever reason, convenience stores always seem to have the boutique soda industry well represented). Passing over Green River, Dave nabbed a Big Red. I went for a Vernors ginger ale. Our bill (including a teriyaki stick) came to $7.43. We loaded our grub into the speed heating area. The instructions on the burrito read: "Turn over every 30 seconds and heat until hot and soft. "

While we waited for that to happen, Dave picked up the latest copy of Weekly World News. The cover story this week: "Satan's Skull Glows White Hot. "

Dave (reading from an inside story): "The Loch Ness Monster is real. God, how many times have they reported that? It must be time for their annual Loch Ness Monster issue. "

Actually, it was time to dig in. First, we read the soda labels.

Mike: "The Original Vernors. Since 1866. "

Dave: "Big Red. No refills. "

We soon discovered that we hadn't microwaved either the burrito or the 18-Wheeler long enough. Not nearly.

Dave: "You gotta eat it from the edge. "

Mike: "This isn't that bad [the 18-wheeler]. Let's see what's in this so-called meat. " (We read the list of ingredients.)

Dave: "Look at all that stuff! "

Mike: "Wait a minute, they lump the beef patty in with the sauce ingredients. They're listed as one ingredient. "

Dave: "They've been scientifically fused together into one, singular food product. "

Mike: "I like it. It's like that Salisbury steak you get in TV dinners. I'll give it a B. And the burrito a B- just because it wasn't at all Mexican. "

Dave: "I give the 18-Wheeler a B+. And I'll give the burrito a B. The teriyaki stick gets an A. "

Mike: "Those always remind me of Motel Hell. "

We started looking for chicken -- roasted, broasted, fried or nuked. We decided to check out the Quick Stop on the corner of Francis and Nevada.

Mike: "Hey, no chicken, but they do have Gingko Biloba. "

As we walked by the coolers, we noted the impressively eclectic selection of ice cream treats.

Dave: "I've got to get a Big Ed's Super Saucer [an ice cream and cookie sandwich]. "

We passed the warm pizza pockets, BBQ and burrito sticks and settled on a corn dog and an order of nachos. Like most convenience store nachos, these were "nachos " only in the broadest sense, consisting of a handful of corn chips patiently awaiting condiment application. Again, with a finger on the button, the "meat " sauce began to flow. Then came the ubiquitous yellow nightmare of runny cheese. Our total here was $6.57.

Dave (reading the corn dog wrapper): "Honey, crunchy outside. Plump and juicy inside. "

Mike: "We'll be the judge of that. Wow, the chips are stale. "

Dave: "Yeah they are. Mustard? "

Mike: "The corn dog's not exactly fresh either. It's really hard on one side. "

Dave: "You gotta kill it with the mustard. The nachos are getting a very low grade. I'm giving them a big fat D. "

Mike: "They're awful. D-. "

Dave: "The chili sauce at 7-11 was definitely superior. "

After that, we were both looking forward to our ice cream dessert. The Big Ed's Super Saucer package proudly exclaimed, "Big 10 Fluid Ounces. "

Mike: "I guess ice cream is officially considered fluid. "

Dave: "What about the chocolate chip cookie sandwich? "

Mike: "I'm starting to feel sick. "

That was it. We had reached the end of the road and the limits of our waistlines. Ultimately, we both arrived at the same conclusion: Convenience store food is, generally, not something most folks would actually choose to eat. But we're glad it's there just the same -- to satisfy compulsions and to diffuse emergency situations. I sincerely believe Dave and I will be paying for this foolhardy episode for years to come, so I hope you all appreciate our sacrifice. Bon appetit.

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