You are told the best meal to be had in the Mono Basin – heck, all of Yosemite Valley – can be found at a mini-mart attached to a Mobil gas station near the intersection of highways 395 and 120.
You scoff, turn up your gastronomic nose. You conjure images of 99-cent microwave bean burritos, shrink-wrapped Slim Jims sold next to the car air fresheners, greasy, bruised-purple hot dogs twirling in a rotisserie of grease.
Still, you heed the advice, for you are a newcomer to these remote parts of our great state. You pull up to the pump, gas up (a criminal $4.89 a gallon) and walk toward the double glass doors under a sign reading ‘‘Tioga Gas Mart.’’ You wend your way past the usual tourist trinkets (key chains and shot glasses, the T-shirts and sunglasses, mosquito repellent and lip balm), thinking, smugly, ‘‘Nothing special here.’’
Way in the back, though, just to the right of a bank of soda machines, this generic mini-mart transforms into nothing short of a four-star dining establishment cleverly disguised as a to-go counter and a few rows of booths, augmented by picnic tables al fresco.
The mural on the wall identifies it as the Whoa Nellie Deli, and it implores diners to ‘‘Sit and have a meal with us.’’ Your sophisticated big-city palate reserves judgment until you look at the menu. Turns out, it’s printed on a board right above your head. Your eyes and esophagus open wide when you look at some of the choices:
• Wild buffalo meatloaf, with port au jus and garlic mashed potatoes: $18.95
• Grilled pork chops, with apricot-wild berry glaze: $19.95.
So blown away are you by the array of slow-food fare (burgers and pizza, too, for the culinary riffraff) at this fast-stop place that you don’t even absorb that there’s a wine list, two types of margaritas and some trendy small-label beers on tap.
Actually, you have plenty of time to absorb this news and mull options. That’s because the lines are so long at dinner hour that you think people were queuing up for a Super Lotto Jackpot tickets or something. Paralyzed by the choices, you step out of line and try to satiate your gnawing need to know how a high-end restaurant found such humble accommodations on a bluff overlooking Mono Lake.
You ask for the manager. You are led to a table and are greeted by Denise Molnar and her husband, Dan. They run the place for Denise’s parents, owners Dennis and Jane Domaille, who opened the gas station/mini-mart/restaurant in 1997. Denise and Dan are crazy busy, what with the restaurant overflowing as well as people wanting to put $40 in Pump No. 3, but they indulge you with the full story of a family business that’s gotten boffo reviews from Yelpsters and snobby restaurant critics alike.
Turns out, neither Dennis nor Jane are ‘‘foodies,’’ per se, though they love a good meal like anyone else. What they share is a passion of quality and quirkiness, which led them to hire a former San Diego beach volleyball bum named Matt Toomey as the chef. Toomey had a new vision for ‘‘roadhouse’’ food, and the Domailles gave him free rein.
Soon, he was doing things like using sweet huckleberry barbecue sauce on entrees as simple as a grilled chicken breast, offering three kinds of soup daily and carrot, chocolate and cheese cakes for dessert.
Word got around. Locals came. Tourists flocked. The media took notice. Toomey became something of a celebrity chef, so successful that, after more than a decade behind the grill at the mini-mart, he left last year to open a restaurant – sans gas station – in Mammoth Lakes. Taking over the toque at what people here just call ‘‘The Mobil’’ is Toomey’s longtime sous chef, Ernesto Romero. The menu and most everything else has stayed the same.
Check that: There are changes. The Mobil has expanded its cultural hegemony in tiny Lee Vining by adding live music on the patio of Thursdays and Sundays, which has raised some eyebrow, according to Denise.
‘‘We’ll get, like, 300 people dancing, and someone random will come up and just want to take a gas and wonder what the hell is going on,’’ Denise tells you. ‘‘It’s kind of funny. We get a lot of foreign travelers who don’t expect it.’’
Dan says, despite write-ups in Sunset Magazine and The New York Times, many weary travelers don’t know what awaits them.
‘‘We still get people who stumble upon it,’’ he says. ‘‘But it’s the same with the eastern Sierra as a whole. People go right past us on their way to and from Yosemite or headed to Vegas or Death Valley. If they stop here, they just get blown away.’’
And, it seems, they become repeat customers. Take Joe Bushong, of San Diego. He discovered the restaurant a few years ago after talking with friends and now, ‘‘every time we come up here, we stop.’’ As he sips on a Golden Trout Pilsner, Bushong says he’s so adapted to the notion of fine dining in a gas station that he’s raised his expectations for The Mobil.
‘‘Actually,’’ he says, ‘‘my pork chops were a little overdone today. For the price, we expected a little better. You are paying for quality, you tend to be more picky.’’
You sense that the locals cut The Mobil more slack. And, by locals, that means people who’ll drive two hours from Yosemite National Park to the west, an hour from Mammoth to the south, a half hour from Bridgeport to the north. You sidle up to three 20-somethings in shorts and T-shirts downing some fish tacos and ask them if this is their first time dining at The Mobil.
When they stop laughing, uproariously, they explain they are seasonal employees at Yosemite.
‘‘I come up about twice a month,’’ Thomas Williams says. ‘‘Why? The park doesn’t have fish tacos. I’d say at this point, I know half the people that work here.’’
Co-worker Samantha Clendenin, who works at high camp, says it’s an hour-and-a-half drive over the Tioga Pass – but worth it.
‘‘It’s good to get out of the park occasionally,’’ she said. ‘‘This is, you know, the big city by comparison.’’
Well, yes, The Mobil is believed to be the only place in Lee Vining that serves ahi sashimi – unless you count the bait shops.
To be fair, Lee Vining has at least three other sit-down restaurants. And you’re sure they serve fine fare. But you have come for the novelty factor, to be able to gauge the surprise on friends’ faces when you tell them you ate dinner at the gas station.
You get back in line and order. You opt for the lobster taquitos, which Denise says is a customer favorite. Spicy, moist and crunchy all at the same time, the entree is sublime. Of course, you could probably find some spicy Doritos, crunchy pork rinds and moist snack cakes across the way in the mini-mart’s snack-food aisle to stave off hunger while on the road. But you could get that at any gas station. This one’s special.