The Food Critic Goes to Wawa
It is popular to sketch the food writer as a restless explorer, trekking to the ends of the known world and stepping beyond. Those who commit a lifetime to search for the perfect artichoke are seen as wanderlusts, troubled souls weighed down only with map and Moleskine. I wouldn’t argue with the caricature. I’ve sucked down a cold clam on an Alaskan aluminum boat and contracted trench foot panning for fleur de sel in the tidal pools of France. Still, the unconquered calls.
I once woke from a dream of a stone plate of glazed potatoes laid on a bare wood table dressed with late afternoon light. The yearning to hunt down the scene was only satisfied three years later when I confronted the very setting in Reykjavik. I knew when my subconscious prompted doodles of sandwiches that it was time to be led once more. I went to the Columbus Ave Wawa.
A man in a neon hoodie held the door for me. Inside, the glow overhead had me questioning whether I’d walked into a museum of food. Hadn’t I? I admired the prix fixe offerings in the express case. A cheese stick robed in pepperoni was both an efficient nod to the au courant charcuterie board and a sophisticated glow-up from child’s-play Polly-O. Supple carrots and celery with the viscosity of thawed french fry paired delightfully with peanut butter. Years ago, you could dip full-size dills from the pickle barrel, but a side-order counter cup is all that remains of the memory.
“Times change,” said store manager Willie as he counted out ten pull-ups using a bar hanging over the kitchen entrance. Staffers trying to get through snapped at him – they had product to move, after all. “As humans, we change, but we stay the same. You know what I mean?” Formerly of the Arby’s empire, where he trained under tastemaker Pauline from F and the Boulevard – a darling of the fast-casual world – rising star Willie brought his talents to Columbus Ave just as the chain started turning out a variety of fusion cuisine. On each finger of his right hand, a word is tattooed: Parsley. Sage. Rosemary. Thyme.
“When I was a kid, my mom made meals for me every day,” Willie told me over a Sizzli breakfast sandwich (scrambled puck of egg, shy bacon strip, soft hat of bagel). “And then I ended up working in food. Pretty cool, if you think about it.”
Willie’s empire of offerings is cataloged on the touch screen menu. The depth can feel intimidating, but take your time: patrons respect the sacred voting process, and my paralysis at the Joycean-length sodium warning or the suggestion to “Add avocado?” was an exercise in self-confidence. Whisper networks talk of a secret menu, when a nod to the goose icon at the screen’s bottom left gives entry to a speakeasy of chef specials, but like Narnia, it isn’t there when you look for it.
Yet a smorgasbord of options are. The day I visited, a surprising variety of potage was available. In the Italian wedding soup, meatballs got friendly in a jacuzzi of broth speckled intimately with spinach. The consistency of the balls had a winsome pluck. I was charmed.
Hot sides arrived over the stainless steel counter in cardboard cups. Hand-dipped mac and cheese was a codependent clinch of noodles and sauce, blissed out from the glow of the retherm oven. It’s rumored to be Stouffer’s: best not to ask nor tell. I went back for more. The rice and beans were too modest to make any Thirty Under Thirty list. The mashed potatoes were earthy, with a tang of socialism.
Unfussy tuna on toast satisfied for a poisson course, and the Swiss with ham on chewy sourdough had the perfect stretch of a Lycra jegging. The freestyle-dressed cheeseburger salad was embarrassing: so conflicted it needed a therapist. My dining companion gasped outwardly at the chalupa. The construction was ungainly; the flavor, beyond reproach. The fettuccine alfredo had less humility than this Catholic school grad is comfortable with.
I took a break to visit the Coke Freestyle machine, reminiscent of rapping with the jerk at the soda fountain. Over one hundred choices of drink combinations can reveal much about one’s self-image. AHA blueberry pomegranate sparkling water with grape Hi-C creates a hi-lo fruit spritzer for the class jumper. A young sophisticate can flash a wink of irony with Pibb Xtra, or a throwback Mello Yello swizzled with Ginger Lime Diet Coke. Waiting for Don to change the syrup bags, I was treated to his life story. Small wonder he became a mixologist: growing up, he stirred Mom-Mom’s Tom Collins every night.
In the beverage case, Wawa’s sinful Double Dutch Chocolate Milk sniffed at the notion that dairy is over. The chatter that bottled Wawa iced tea is manufactured by local frenemy Turkey Hill as a peace treaty could be no more than fodder serving brand points for both, but what is a meal without some myth?
Refreshed, I returned to the counter. Staffer Crystal offered folded corrugated trays laid with a Jersey-imported bread roll and jaded veggie quesadilla. The Mediterranean chicken salad was a thrilling riot of color, but the ingredients in the meatball sandwich struggled with sibling rivalry. I got dizzy browsing the aggressive lineup of further options – brisket, pitas, burgers. Crystal, sensing my overwhelm, handed me a pulled pork taco. It was both effortful and forgettable. I allowed only a moment of mourning for the retired Kale Champagne Vinaigrette salad. One cannot visit the past. I moved on to the process for my final to-go order: the Italian hoagie.
A child or disempowered person may order the four-inch roll. A respectable citizen will not go below six. I declined a pour of iodized salt and chose a prodigal spread of hot peppers as colorful as the language heard earlier while holding up traffic trying to park on Broad Street. Carl, who left the corporate world to sling sandwiches, hand-laid the cold cuts with the precision of a surgeon - and who wouldn’t put their life in the hands of one who constructs such masterwork? Salami was draped over provolone as artfully as S & S lays brick. Carl taped the paper wrapping and winked. I was moved.
Hoagie in hand, I picked up a soft pretzel as a palate cleanser. My companion agreed that for not being real Philly pretzels, they were alarmingly good. There were more than enough dessert options to fill my dance card. Tawny cake donuts flirted from the patisserie case. A butterscotch Krimpet from the Tastykake aisle was a Proustian madeleine of a thing, calling to mind days of helmet-free bike riding and fistfights in vacant lots. Mischievous candy-studded cookies at the register were a study in clever whimsy.
“We forgot coffee!” my companion cried. Shaken, I tucked my goods in my armpits and rushed to the hierarchy of Wawa’s coffee zone. The lowest hanging fruit is the iced coffee machine; on the next rung, the hot beverage dispenser, serving steamers and suspicious cappuccinos. The standard coffee carafes, replacing yesteryear’s glass pots but maintaining their reliability, are the drink of the Everyman. Atop the caste system are the handcrafted counter beverages. If it’s payday, treat yourself. A buttery caramel hot latte vanished all thoughts of responsibility from my mind, and the Blush Strawberry Oat Milk Refresher had me blushing indeed. Did I deserve such luxury on a Tuesday? The Bananas Foster Cream Smoothie seemed to be courting madness.
Nicole, at the register, offered life advice: be safe out there. In front of the store, I laid down my paper wrapping on the comforting scarred gray plastic of the trash can to enjoy the hoagie in the proper tradition. I knew not to be shaken by the man yelling that I was in his spot. The best establishments do not take reservations. Whether you want to burden yourself with frustration over the lack of paper napkins, or simply use a sleeve to mop your face, is up to you. I prepared for the latter, and took my first bite. The result was nothing less than abuse of the metaphor, so forgive this wandering critic who has found her way home: goosebumps.