Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Whoa Nellie: Good Food for a Rumbling Belly

Location: Lee Vining, CA
Date: Aug. 25, 2011

A sign catering to your car and your hunger
No, your eyes do not deceive you. The sign above reads "Mobil" (as in a gas station) and "Restaurant" (as in a culinary destination). Two places that are not typically collaborative have joined forces just outside Yosemite National Park, on the corner of Highway 120 and Highway 395, to satisfy empty tanks for both vehicles and their occupants alike.

I don't know about you, but I generally think of gas stations as nice places for motorized modes of transportation to splurge on as much premium fuel as their drivers are willing to flush into their overzealous tanks. Hungry humans, however, are limited to over processed crap in a sack; food options that are about as good for your body as 50-year-old gunky motor oil is for your vehicle's engine. That is, of course, until my experience at Whoa Nellie Deli gave me hope that great food can be found at some (albeit a very limited 'some') gas stations.

Due to an intriguingly hyped recommendation from a longtime friend, my family and I decided to give this place a try for one of the seven dinners that we annually devour in the Eastern Sierras. Upon entering, I noticed immediately that we didn't quite fit in. By no means were we outcasts, but the majority of the patrons were dusty and visibly exhausted from a long day or two (or three or more) of enjoying the memorable experiences that Yosemite has to offer. My family and I, on the other hand, were pretty clean and fresh off another relaxing day at June Lake, a few miles down Highway 395. Nevertheless, we were hungry. If not for spending hours trekking through one of John Muir's picturesque wooded asylums, then we were simply hungry because we were on vacation, and wanted to eat.

For a deli in a gas station, there were quite a few enticing choices. Wild Buffalo Meatloaf and Legendary Lobster Taquitos were undoubtedly an unexpected duo on the very captivating list of menu items. Our inside source, however, advocated an article much simpler. A margarita from the left. A pizza from the right. That'll do.

World Famous BBQ Chicken Pizza with cilantro pesto. I don't know how the classically Californian pie from an unconventional gas station eatery ascended the culinary ranks to global prominence, but it was damn good. Let's take it from the top. Sesame seeds...eh. I don't know why they were there. Flavor and texture? Unnecessary. Presentation? I guess so, but it's pizza from a gas station in the mountains. In this case, I care very little about appearance. I'm all about the taste. No food presentation would be comparable to the pristine surrounding Sierra scenery anyway. The BBQ sauce was sweet, thick and hearty. Tasting it took me back to cherished family cookouts. The mozzarella cheese was successfully transformed into the molten dairy darling synonymous with all great circular flat breads. There was plenty of cheese to form long strings of mozzarella goodness from its source to my taster, but not enough to overpower the other components. The chicken was amazing. Dark meat was used, which kept each bite of chicken succulent and moist, thanks to a slightly higher fat content. More fat also meant more taste, thus dark chicken brought another level of flavor to an already flavorful bite of pizza that white meat just wouldn't have had. And there was plenty of it. I believe I got a piece of chicken in just about every bite. The most surprising aspect of the pizza was the cilantro pesto. It was unexpected, but added a very fresh flavor in a creamy package that helped balance the rich hearty flavors of the other ingredients. In order to support such a cast of delectable ingredients, a solid base is a must. The crust on this pizza was just that. Solid. It was charred and crisp, but retained a slight chew. Most importantly, it stood up to the task of bringing each memorable bite from the paper plate to my watering mouth.

Why wouldn't this place have dessert? With four mouths to feed, one dessert wouldn't suffice. Carrot cake was one of two gigantic slices of dessert that my family splurged on. This cake was loaded. Carrots obviously took the lead, but it was surrounded by an ensemble of talented costars from raisins to, well, unfortunately, other unidentifiable ingredients. The six layers of cake could have easily satisfied any sweet tooth on their own. Its inherent moisture warranted no need for any creamy frosting to mask potential dryness, but the cream cheese frosting was there in full force. It was so sweet, creamy and rich. The combination of moist cake and creamy frosting successfully spoiled every last one of my nearly 10000 taste buds with sweet, sweet bliss. The textural contrast provided by the nuts on top didn't hurt either.

Chocolate lovers rejoice! This cake could satisfy any chocolate craving known to man/woman. I really don't know how to describe this treat other than it was 100% chocolate. It was bittersweet and sweet. The cake itself was dense, but moist. It stuck together well without becoming too crumbly. The chocolate ganache was so rich. Not quite as creamy as the carrot cake's frosting, but it melted in my mouth and created a favorable flow of chocolate that coated my tongue, and helped transport each dense bite of cake down my throat. The only thing this monstrous slice of chocolate cake needed was a nice tall glass of ice cold milk. 

If you ever find yourself planning a trip to Yosemite, or anywhere near this place, do yourself a favor and stop by. Your hunger will be satisfied, and taste buds eternally grateful. 


  1. I wonder if they have a pit crew to change the grease traps and the oil for the fryer. Despite the oddness of the name, it looks like this place serves up some tasty treats. I'll mark it down for my next road trip through Yosemite. Cheers!