The best food in America isn't always served at restaurants—try cellphone stores and car washes. 

By Maria Yagoda
Updated May 30, 2018
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Credit: Susan Rice Covington

One of the best parts of embarking on the Great American Road Trip is finding excellent food where you'd least expect it. From gas station fried chicken to car wash doughnuts, unbelievable food lurks in the most unexpected places. Here's a handy guide to some of the best:

The Gas Station: Fried Chicken (North Carolina)

Credit: Susan Rice Covington

Ask any of the 15,000-plus residents of my hometown Laurinburg, North Carolina, what one of their top favorite things to eat around town is, and nine times out of ten, fried chicken from Nic’s Pic Kwik comes up. The convenient store serves the most glorified gas station fried chicken in the state, possibly the entire region.

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The Gas Station, Part 2: Fresh Sausage (Kentucky)

Credit: Newman Miller

Like most chefs, Newman Miller of Star Hill Provisions in Loretto, Kentucky is fanatical about where he sources his products. Often, finding the best ingredients requires snooping around in unconventional places: Miller makes his signature sausage balls using meat from 150 Quick Stop (Jake's), a truck stop in Bardstown, Kentucky that he claims makes some of the best sausage in the country. In fact, he won't buy sausage anywhere else, and it's one of the only products Star Hill Provisions doesn't prepare in-house, because they'll never get it quite as good.

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The Highway Carwash: Doughnuts (New York)

The brainchild of a former Chanterelle sous chef, this innovative shop popped up in the old school Westside Highway Car Wash with flavors like maple waffle and cocoa-raspberry.

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The Parking Lot: Sushi (Hawaii)

When on the island—any Hawaiian island, really—poke is one of the best things to eat. And while Da Poke Shack will always be an obligatory stop, a local on the Big Island suggested we check out Chirashi Sushi-Don by Jiro, a tiny shack in the parking lot of Lanihau Center shopping mall. While it’s not technically hidden, it’s so small and unassuming that people walk right past it daily without even realizing it exists. The first attempt ended quickly, as we arrived only to find they’d capped out for the day and would be closing soon. “Give us a call tomorrow,” the woman inside the shack said.

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Dollywood: Soul Food (Tennessee)

The pot roast was pulled, tender, doused in rich gravy. The pit ham was also pulled, gorgeous in its not-too-salty, naked simplicity. I wiped both of them out, and quickly; the ham, I felt, went exceptionally well with the chowchow, which also quickly disappeared. Turnip greens had been cooked within an inch of their life, as is the local custom. Gone was much of the customary bitterness—they weren't overly seasoned or terribly distinctive, but once again, I couldn't help but eat them all. The pinto beans were beautifully straightforward, perfectly cooked, classic, a total throwback.

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The Adult Video Store: Cocktails (California)

Credit: © Sam Stephenson / Alamy Stock Photo

Fittingly called “Adults Only,” the new bar has a little bit of an SNL’s Stefon vibe. Located literally in the middle of a Sunset Boulevard strip mall between a Burger King and Starbucks, the bar only has discreet signage featuring its name. Once inside, interested drinkers have to walk past a collection of VHS tapes, through a curtain and into another section of videos that are strictly for adults (aka, pornos). Continue onward though and you reach what LAist calls “a huge, open space with high-ceilings, a stained glass window and a glorious bar with just the right amount of dim lighting.”

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The Airport: Sushi (New Jersey)

Credit: Danica Lo

It's 6 a.m. and still pitch black outside. We've been up since three, and at Tokyo's legendary Tsukiji Fish Market since four—on the ground early to make sure we didn't miss the morning's cutthroat tuna and uni auctions. Behold, our prize: this freshly-caught whole tuna—weighing in at 150 kilograms—now packed with ice and ready to ship.

By noon, Mr. Tuna will have made his way to Narita and, later that evening, will be securely tucked away in cargo onboard a United Airlines flight bound for Newark International Airport in New Jersey where, within hours, the fish will be expertly sliced, prepared, and wrapped for the thousands of travelers coursing through Terminal C looking for a healthy grab-and-go meal.

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The Gas Station, Part 3: Brisket (Texas)

Barbecue is in the air here, quite literally—on any given day, an amble around East Austin, or a visit to the small town smoked meat meccas not all that far from there, will leave you smelling faintly of the most beautiful kind of secondhand smoke. Access to barbecue is all but a birthright in these parts, and the generously portioned brisket sandwiches you can buy for $5.49 at Bu-cee's are something like point proven.

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The Strip Mall: Indian Food (Texas)

We loved Gopal the way other teenage girls loved boys. (Not that we didn’t love boys, too.) The Texas restaurant served food from Gujarat, the leaf-shaped state on India’s west coast, fed by the Arabian Sea. Gopal sat on a plot of Dallasconcrete. To get to it from anywhere meant threading a highway and access road to a parking lot where, in my memory, Gopal stood alone. The walk to its door passed as if to another time and space. Not waves, but car hum moved the air, from a belt of highway above trees.

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The Cell Phone Store: Indian Groceries (New York)

Little Myanmar
| Credit: Max Falkowitz

Max Falkowitz

Instead of a cell phone store, you head past a sari shop to a stall barely big enough to turn around in. At Little Myanmar, three Burmese women toggle shifts to sell fermented tea leaves, dried fruits and nuts and instant soup mixes to the growing Burmese community, the latest demographic shift in Jackson Heights’ ever-changing population.

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The Mall: Pork Belly Ramen (Pennsylvania)

Credit: Spencer Starnes Photography

Situated in the suburbs of Philly, the King of Prussia Mall—referred to by locals as “KOP”—is the second largest in the country, packed with a seemingly endless string of high-end stores like Apple and Gucci, as well as your standards like Hot Topic and Cinnabon. While KOP has historically lured people with a taste for luxury goods, the mall is now drawing crowds of diners eager to taste Scott Anderson’s cooking.

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