2 great restaurants are hiding at San Fernando Valley gas stations – Daily News

Driving from New York to Florida, my family would always stop in Hamer, South Carolina, at a legendary truck stop called South of the Border. To my amazement, it included a fireworks shop the size of a Costco, where you could buy enough rockets and sparklers to overthrow a banana republic. And of course, we’d always go to the sprawling Sombrero Restaurant for what was probably the first Mexican food I ever ate.

In the years since, I’ve been to a multitude of truck stop restaurants across the country — at city-sized gas stations like Iowa 80 in Walcott, Iowa; Woodshed at Big Cabin, Oklahoma; King’s Truck Stop & Casino in Port Barre, Louisiana; Big Country in Merkel, Texas, and so many more. The gas pumps number in the dozens at each, the convenience stores are filled with wonders, and the portions in the restaurants are massive — this is food for truckers, after all.

And though there are no truck stops in the San Fernando Valley, there are gas stations where you can grab a bit more than a microwave hot dog. A lot more, in fact.

  • While the space and menu may be relatively small at Tokyo Cube, the Asian fusion restaurant is big on taste, says restaurant critic Merrill Shindler. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)

  • Cilantro Mexican Grill is a great restaurant in an unexpected space – adjacent to the food mart at a Chevron service station on Whitsett Avenue in North Hollywood. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)

My favorite gas station restaurant, and one of my favorite restaurants overall, is the uniquely quirky Tokyo Cube (3175 Cahuenga Blvd. W., Universal City; 323-366-2233, tokyocubela.com), which is nothing like anything found at the truck stops of America. It sits adjacent to AutoBahn Fuel, at the point where the Valley turns into the city, where Studio City flows through Universal City into Hollywood. You’ve got to walk past the pumps and the AutoBahn Market to get to it, which makes dining on the small outdoor patio a bit of an…alternative experience.

Finding an Asian fusion shop as good as Tokyo Cube in a gas station is a bit like finding a winning lottery ticket in a box of Cracker Jack. It’s where locals go for sake and beer, and rolls of every imaginable type, stripe and hue. Tokyo Cube is as much fun as eating in Tokyo — and so much closer.

It’s a happily chaotic restaurant, with manically busy chefs and servers, a handful of tables, big screens here and there, and cartoons on the walls. It’s a bit like the Tokyo of “Lost in Translation,” where somehow everything works, but you’re not sure how.

There’s a checklist menu for the basic nigiri sushi and “regular” rolls — a menu that barely scratches the surface of what makes Tokyo Cube such an experience, for much, much more of the menu is taken up with appetizers, soups, salad, noodles , special rolls, veggie rolls, poke bowls, sashimi preps, grilled dishes, and “Special from Kitchen” dishes like the Japanese king crab udon carbonara, and the coconut curry and chicken karaage ramen.

You can have lava chocolate brownies for dessert. Sure…why not? You can also have the quirky chicken potsticker gyoza, which looks like a pancake until you flip it over, and discover that the potstickers are embedded in the pancake. Which is why the menu tells us they’re served “okonomiyaki style” — a Japanese pizza. Clever! And very tasty too.

But then, twists and turns are to be found all over the menu. As it says, this is a “Japanese fusion” restaurant. Thus, the edamame is served as it is. But it also comes with a garlic butter (does that make it French?), and with a garlic and truffle sauce (which is definitely French!).

There are some properly crispy french fries, a bit of an oddity at a sushi bar, given a nice kick with spicy mayonnaise sauce. Mushrooms are stuffed with spicy crab and cream cheese. There’s a salad made with corn tempura — corn in a crunchy batter. And that aforementioned king crab udon carbonara is Japanese-Italian. It’s decidedly heavy in a world of seared tuna over rice. But hey, “fusion” is the word!

The menu informs us that parking is available at the gas station. I’ve been to a lot of sushi bars, and that offer is probably a first.

Though it’s only about 20 minutes north on the freeway, the experience at Cilantro Mexican Grill (at the Chevron gas station, 7214 Whitsett Ave., North Hollywood; 818-765-7998, www.cilantromexican.com) couldn’t be further away! This particular Chevron station is about as big as any in the Valley, with a massive food mart selling just about everything but ski boats and helicopters.

And Cilantro isn’t just adjacent to the food mart — it’s actually inside. It sits next to the unexpectedly fancy coffee area, where you can flavor your brew any of a zillion ways. (Does that exist for long distance truckers too these days? Have they exchanged their cuppa joe for a cappuccino or some cold brew?)

There’s a breakfast menu (the place opens at 6 am!) of burritos, bowls and sandwiches. As the day goes along, those dishes are joined by tortas and tacos.

The dishes are all made to order, from a massive selection of choices behind the counter — carne asada, chicken al pastor, beef barbacoa, carnitas, grilled shrimp and vegetarian. There are enough add-ons to make the burritos and the bowls so big they need wheels of their own.

I guess this is food you can eat in your car, though I’d do it safely parked in the lot, or while gassing up. If you drop a burritos on your lap at 65 mph, you’re in serious trouble. And I think that may be a moving violation. But then, isn’t everything?

Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email [email protected]

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