Tupelo, Mississippi's Best Food Is Found in Gas Stations (2024)

Tupelo, Mississippi's Best Food Is Found in Gas Stations (1)

It was only 9 am, but Patricia Wax had been working in the kitchen of King Chicken Fillin' Station for at least three hours by the time I stepped in front of the red walk-up window.

A black-and-white Elvis mural exhorted me to “eat like a king,” while three gas pumps stood behind me. They were remnants of Belden Cash Grocer, once the oldest gas stations and convenience stores in all of Lee County, Mississippi. As a kid, Wax’s grandfather would bring her and her sister to this very spot, and they would climb up a tree to enjoy their peach sodas.

After managing a McDonald’s franchise for more than three decades, Wax took over King Chicken in late 2019 and brought her family recipes with her. The robust menu is centered around poultry—get your chicken fried, grilled, or smoked, on a sandwich, in a salad, or on a plate with your choice of sides.

As it was still early, I opted for fried chicken on a honey-butter biscuit with gravy and eggs. The thick, juicy piece of meat was crispy but lightly breaded, and the honey-tinged biscuit only surrendered its end bits as I bit into it—it stayed a sandwich and not a pile of crumbs. All of the food, including the hot sauce, is made from scratch.

I asked Wax, who owns the restaurant with her sister Valerie, what the secret was to those perfect biscuits. “I just grew up cooking like that,” she said. “I watched my grandma…It’s weird but it’s amazing, having people stop at our little gas station–style restaurant.”

Having grown up with 11 siblings, she was used to feeding a large group, so 100 customers a day never felt like a stretch. But the pair plans to open a second location just across town in June in order to feed even more.

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The gas station cuisine of Tupelo isn’t intricately plated for social media. It’s filling, comforting, messy, and familiar. But it’s also far from the processed cheese nachos or bland hot dogs that one typically encounters on road trips. This is a true Southern experience—one that extends well beyond the birthplace of Elvis. Among the Magnolia State’s most legendary convenient comfort food is Fratesi Grocery & Service Station, which has been serving po’ boys and Italian deli classics in Leland since 1941; classic Southern bites from Betty Campbell, who cooked for B.B. King, at a former service station in Indianola, Indiana; and the college-student favorite chicken-on-a-stick at 4 Corners Chevron in Oxford. (Think of a kebab made of fried chicken instead of grilled meat and vegetables, though other venues serve their versions with potatoes, green bell peppers, onions, and/or pickles too, as is the case at Dodge’s Southern Style, a regional chain started in Tupelo that nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned when asked for their go-to gas station meal.)

Kate Medley is a photojournalist from Mississippi who spent a decade traveling to gas stations across 11 states. She found some consistencies: The food is generally inexpensive, portable, hot, and universally liked. “In the more rural areas, they can’t afford to take a chance on new foods as easily,” she told me. “Maybe they’re the only commercial enterprise for 30 miles as is the case for a lot of places in Mississippi. It has to be this true resting spot for everyone.”

But there were some exceptions. In writing her book, Thank You Please Come Again: How Gas Stations Feed & Fuel the American South, Medley also stumbled upon everything from banh mis in a Texaco outside of New Orleans to Senegalese cuisine in the back of a Circle K in North Carolina.

“The South is not this monolithic region as I think it can often be portrayed,” she said. “It has a diversity of people, a diversity of thought, a diversity of foodways, and you see all this when you stop and eat lunch at the gas station.”

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The phrase “chicken spaghetti” meant something different in Mississippi.

What sounded to my untrained ears like a basic noodle dish turned out to be a casserole—a rich mix of pasta with canned Ro-Tel tomatoes, condensed soup, shredded chicken, and plenty of cheese.

As I twirled my first bite on a plastic fork, I was reminded of a loosely composed baked ziti. The dish tasted like something a neighbor would bring over as a housewarming hello. Except I wasn’t at home or attending an event or even at a sit-down restaurant—I was scooping up mouthfuls from a Styrofoam container at Thomas Street Grocery, which operates in a working gas station on the south end of Tupelo.

Across the convenience store aisles from where I was sitting, grab-and-go fridges and freezers were stocked with an array of freshly made casseroles (hamburger tater tot, chicken and dressing, sweet potato), as well as salads, sandwiches, sides, and pies. There was also a counter where diners could order plate lunches from a rotating menu of Southern classics. Beyond the chicken spaghetti, the day’s menu included broccoli salad, turnip greens, smoked chicken, and cornbread. When the food’s gone, that’s it for the day.

“We do a lot of work here,” said Vickey Hester, who’s worked as Thomas Street’s chef for the past eight years. She peered at a mostly full freezer case and worried that it was “running low.” Then she took me back to the kitchen where a massive pot of ground beef was browning for the hamburger pie she planned on serving the next day.

It's not only the quality of the food that sets these gas stations apart from elsewhere in the United States—it’s the service. That quintessential Southern hospitality is on display even at a side-of-the-road rest stop.

As I was about to head out from Thomas Street to continue my epicurean exploration, Hester pushed a personal-sized honey bun cake into my hands. I was much too full to try it then, but when I bit into it later that night in my hotel room, I couldn't help but smile. It was sweet and crumbly and tasted like it was made with care.

And it was as good as anything I’d eaten at an award-winning bakery.

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Everyone in Tupelo has their favorite gas station to grab lunch.

Papa V's BBQ and Deliis the go-to for the downtown work crowd, particularly for smoked chicken as part of a plate lunch (your choice of meat and sides) or fried catfish on Fridays, though the exact menu changes daily. Most of the space is taken up by typical convenience store fare, including an impressive selection of beers.

My timing wasn’t great: I stopped in as they were switching over from breakfast to lunch but managed to nab a lightly iced cinnamon roll that was just the right amount of sweet to still be considered fair game for breakfast.

The snack was perfectly sized because I needed room for brisket-topped taters, rib tips, and blueberry cheesecake cobbler at Clay’s House of Pig (C.H.O.P. to locals). Until last year, the lunchtime barbecue spot had doubled as a bait-and-tackle shop. Late owner Clay Coleman (he passed away in early 2021 due to complications from COVID-19) added the restaurant in 2017 as a way to stay in business in the winter when bait sales dipped.

His dad built the small smoker that sits out back, and Coleman adapted childhood recipes to fit the undersized cooktop. “We sold out the first day,” said his wife, Jinnie Coleman, who now runs C.H.O.P. The meat is chopped, not pulled, so it retains a moistness that’s often missing without globs of sauce—though all the sauces here are made in-house and should be readily used.

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C.H.O.P. has managed to stay in business for nearly a decade and is well-known by residents, which was evident by the line that continued to grow as the clock wound past noon.

Though ubiquitous, many of these eateries in unexpected venues can be hard to pin down. Earlier that day, I drove around trying to locate a gas station barbecue spot that a regional newspaper said served soul food “you might find gracing the tables of homes across the South on a Sunday morning” but couldn’t. Perhaps it had closed. Or moved.

Not a problem. There were plenty of other spots.

One of Tupelo’s newest additions is Main Street Deli & Market. It was a classic of the genre: Fuel pumps were operating outside, and all the convenience store trappings were inside. But, unlike any of the other eateries I’d visited over the last couple of days, Main Street’s menu included a robust breakfast—think fruit smoothies, a breakfast burrito, and avocado toast—and paninis, wraps, salads, and deli sandwiches later on thanks to its New York transplant owner. Hot plate lunches and fried chicken are, of course, also available, but Main Street otherwise defied Tupelo gas stations’ focus on Southern food.

These venues also defied my perception of gas stations. I’d never thought of them as more than pit stops to buzz through: refuel, have a restroom break, and grab a bag of chips and some caffeine to get me to my destination. There were never surprises to be found in these locales—or at least any good surprises. Not so in the South, where visitors are continuously asked to slow down. I watched people linger over their to-go containers the same way they would at a friend’s house, and I found myself wanting to sit and gab a bit longer—if only to allow my stomach time to gain the room for whatever homemade dessert was on the daily menu.

I recalled what Jennie Bradford Curlee, deputy director of the Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau, had told me as we bit into our King Chicken biscuits: “The thing about Mississippi is you can’t judge a book by its cover. You think, I’m not going in there, but it may be the best meal you’ve ever had.”

With that in mind, I left Main Street eager to find my next great meal.

Daliah Singeris an award-winning freelance journalist based in Denver, Colorado. Before striking out on her own, she spent more than seven years as a magazine editor at5280, Denver’s city magazine. In 2016, Folio: honored her as a 30 Under 30, calling me a “young journalist to watch.” I was named a 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for “The Girls Next Door,” an exposé on the sex trafficking of minors in Colorado.

Tupelo, Mississippi's Best Food Is Found in Gas Stations (2024)
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