"Guys - I've got some good news, and some bad news."
I am on the phone to my buddy PJ, and Plus One is within earshot.
"The good news is - I am going to shout you guys lunch. The bad news is - it's going to come from a service station."
Doh! Pin drop, then nervous laughter. But I'm not joking, oh no. This is no laughing matter. I am deadly freakin' serious.
As I explained recently, sometimes I get sent food-type things by people who want me to incorporate a mention of their product into this forum. And when recently I besmirched the reputation of service station food, some nice person at Z Energy sent me a voucher, with a suggestion that I come and try the food and coffee, and the implication that I might be pleasantly surprised.
So, voucher in hand, and with my posse of co-tasters (Plus One, PJ, and PJ's very grown up three-year-old daughter), we headed to the Z Station in Taranaki St, Wellington, to assemble - the service station degustation.
We approach it in a (faintly) scientific fashion. We scout out the store; PJ - who is in the design biz - points out a few things about the way the store is laid out and stocked. There has been a definite effort to steer it away from looking corporate and/or dull, and it is certainly a nicer environment than your bog standard servo. The products it stocks are not just your big, obvious brands - they even have the excellent Foxton Fizz (not quite Six Barrel Soda in terms of hipness, but not far off) - we grab some. Creaming soda, raspberry. A strawberry milk for the little girl. So far, so good.
Pies - we're going to have to try pies. Pies are, surely, the bedrock upon which service station food reputations are made. The Z station has two price points of pies, both made by Goodtime Pies in Hawke's Bay - their classic range (mince, mince and cheese, steak, steak and cheese etc) at $3.30, and a gourmet ($4.90) range of fancier flavours, including New York pepper steak, butter chicken and Thai chicken curry (the latter two both examples of what I call "the confused takeaway" - curry pizzas etc) and the vegetarian option, kumara and cashew, which we go for, alongside a steak and cheese classic pie (which is also available in a combo with a coffee for $5.50).
We choose a "deluxe" sausage roll, and, given my recent post about cheese rolls (also, apparently, known as "Southland sushi"), a cheese and basil roll.
We also go for a sandwich - roast beef with horseradish mayo, and a red velvet cupcake. Plus, of course, we have to try the coffee, which, truth be told, is probably the thing I am dreading the most.
We head back to PJ's place, and lay out our service station degustation. It looks... pretty good? I am pleasantly surprised. I cut everything into bite size pieces so we can all taste everything.
Okay - the good. Foxton Fizz - obviously. Excellent. Although, how much credit you want to attribute to a service station for just placing the beverage in a fridge, I'm not sure. Still, kudos for having the "indie" soft drink as well as the big brands.
Now - pies. Guess what? The steak and cheese is absolutely delicious! Remarkable! Service station or no, this is a bloody good pie! It is meaty, savoury, and the gravy is distinctly umami. I now have high hopes for the "premium" kumara and cashew vege pie. Given that your bog standard variety was so good, this could be a revolution in servo pies. Umm, I'm afraid not. It's just a bit... nothing. Bummer.
Now - the cheese and basil roll, and the deluxe sausage roll. Both are pretty okay, not earth-shattering, but not revolting either. The sossie roll's pastry is light, and it has grated cheese on top, and gets an unexpected endorsement from the little girl, who eats her portion and then declares "want some more, please", like a little, tiny Oliver.
I carve up the sandwich and, to be honest, things don't look all that promising. The wholemeal bread is a bit dry and stale, the cheese contained within is of the pre-sliced, plastic packaged variety, and the beef looks grey and uninspiring. Again, the little girl requests more of the sandwich - weird kid.
We then divvy up the cupcake - it looks pretty good, not dry as you might expect. Unfortunately, it tastes faintly of some sort of oil - and I guess that's why it isn't dry. It is not by any stretch of the imagination a bad cupcake, but neither is it a good cupcake. It's... okay.
The coffee - well, let's just say this - it was probably the best service station coffee I have ever had. Okay, it may have also been the only service station coffee I have had, certainly the only one I have risked in living memory, but as PJ said; "if I got that in a café, I'd be pretty happy". P1 has a chai latte, for which a Schott syrup is used - very good.
All in all, yes, I would have to conclude that, as far as service station tucker goes, this was far, far better than some of the shockers I have had. One pie was excellent, one was a little blah, the other savouries were pretty okay, the coffee was pretty good, they had nice soft drinks, and the cupcake was at least attractive. On the downside, the sandwich was pretty lousy, actually - stale, dry bread and uninspiring fillings.
Perhaps the service station needs to focus on what it can deliver with consistency - and I am not entirely convinced that any pre-made sandwich will ever be all that flash. It is encouraging to see that steps are being taken to make for better service station fare, even if they are not necessarily quite there yet. But, in terms of range - definitely an improvement on my servo tucker experiences, and, whilst I wouldn't necessarily go out of my way to eat there by choice, neither would I move heaven and earth to not eat there.
What is your experience of service station food? Have you tried the offerings at the new Z Energy stations? What did you think - a step in the right direction? And - have you ever had really great servo food? Or - really spectacularly bad?
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