Head cook Jose Mata, along with his sister, Yolanda and her husband, Todd MacWhinnie, have opened a Mexican restaurant in Lewiston called El Pocho’s Mexican Grill.
Anyone who’s spent a few hungry hours driving around central Maine for business or pleasure knows the large stretches of road with few places to stop besides gas stations and convenience stores. These are the food deserts. If you’re lucky, you might find a slice of browning pizza in a Plexiglas case, a few aging hot dogs on a rotisserie and the standard fare of candy bars. Looking for Mexican food? If the travel gods shine upon you, you may find a frozen burrito next to the Budweiser.
Such privation is not the norm. Motoring along the Mississippi Delta, travelers find delicious food at counters right alongside the cash register. You can sit for a spell at a casual table in the back of a convenience store for a plate of regional specialties such as chicken on a stick and the Cajun sausage known as boudin.
Finding tasty food in unexpected places has, in part, inspired interest in gas station cuisine. In some cases, it’s an outgrowth of the food truck craze. Food truck owners looking to set down roots see gas stations as logical places to set up shop, with lower rents and increased traffic.
While that trend hasn’t taken firm root in Maine yet, one trend-leading example is located right here in Lewiston: El Pocho’s Mexican Grill, located inside the Coast to Coast gas station and convenience store at 990 Lisbon St.
Its quick popularity has thrilled the owners, who offer a menu of simple Mexican staples at reasonable prices. Locals and travelers alike who find their way to the open kitchen can pull up a stool and put in an order for tacos, enchiladas or baby chimis. Quesadillas? They’ve got them. Flautas, burritos, tostadas and even taco salads are all waiting for the hungry.
And to start off: How about chunky and crunchy guacamole accented with chopped green pepper and kernels of corn? Or sides of salsa with grilled pineapple? They’ve got it all, perfect to whet appetites while head cook Jose Mata navigates the compact kitchen and prepares the order.
Waiting at the bar running the length of the restaurant, customers get an appreciation of the complexities of food creation. With only two basket fryolators, two gas burners, two small ovens and a grill, Mata dishes it up.
When a customer asks about the flat, brown chili peppers sitting in a bowl on the bar, Mata gladly gives a short lesson in how he prepares and uses them in El Pocho’s dishes.
On the day of this visit, Mata was cooking and sister and co-owner Yolanda MacWhinnie was tapping her feet to streaming music while she put together a take-out order. The song, a ballad or “corridos,” was sung with an accompanying accordion.
“That’s Lalo Mora,” MacWhinnie said excitedly. “He’s huge in Mexico!”
Also huge in Mexico are Topo Sabores sodas; El Pocho’s offers the beverage in flavors like tamarind, apple, and non-alcoholic sangria. Made with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, it’s almost guilt-free.
Both MacWhinnie and Mata like to try different daily specials. Sometimes the specials are variations of menu items, like the cream cheese and hot pepper-filled baby chimichanga MacWhinnie’s been testing. She offers it to a waiting customer, who says it tastes like a cross between a deep-fried pepper and a wonton.
“It’s my version of a jalapeno popper,” she says.
Mata, too, enjoys trying out new food creations. He describes a “Mexican pizza” he made for his family recently. He substitutes refried beans for the pizza sauce on the crust and garnishes it with chicken, tomatoes, onions, cilantro and cheese and bakes it.
Will it make an appearance on El Pocho’s menu? Mata smiles, but he doesn’t commit.
Another menu surprise is the charro beans or “cowboy beans.” These tasty, slightly spicy beans are another traditional Mexican dish, and MacWhinnie says “I have a customer who buys them almost every day, he likes them so much!”
What’s the future of gas station food in Maine? If El Pocho’s is an inspiration, maybe a few more of them will consider upping their game. And if not, motor on past the food desert to Lewiston and fill up on El Pocho’s fare. It’s “deliciosio!”
Julie-Ann Baumer lives, cooks and writes from her home in Lisbon Falls. Read her blog www.julieannbaumer.com or follow her on twitter @aunttomato
A beef burrito with beans and rice from El Pocho’s Mexican Grill in Lewiston.
El Pocho’s Mexican Grill
990 Lisbon St., Lewiston
Head cook Jose Mata sprinkles shredded chicken on a taco salad at El Pocho’s Mexican Grill.
Head cook Jose Mata finishes an order of beef tacos with sour cream at El Pocho’s Mexican Grill.
A order of enchiladas with beans and rice from El Pocho’s Mexican Grill in Lewiston.