One of the serendipitous side effects of our Great Recession is finding overqualified chefs in locations that seemingly don’t deserve them—in luxe loncheras, say, or moribund office parks à la Rick’s Atomic Café in Costa Mesa. Downsizing for these men and women inspires recalibration, a time to focus attention on what the consumer wants, and it allows people to afford gourmet meals they wouldn’t have dreamed of enjoying five years ago.
Another such gem opened recently. Peter’s Gourmade Grill is just a kitchen and an order window sliced off from a Valero gas station where Santa Ana’s industrial section turns into Tustin’s barrio. The Cordon Bleu-trained Peter Stavros runs this dive, which is so tiny that seating is either the curb or the hood of your car. The menu is understandably limited—sandwiches, burgers, fries, salads and Mexican food—but within the entrées lies genius. Take the Sweet Potato Gooeys, fries cut from the orange tuber and featuring brown sugar, maple syrup and marshmallow toasted to the edge of becoming milky goo. Stavros turns a cliché—don’t you just hate how restaurants think they’re a gastropub if they offer sweet-potato fries?—into a sticky stunner: The different tones of sweet don’t overwhelm one another, even as the meal itself overwhelms your sweet tooth. This is gas-stop cuisine at its finest; you’ll never order Zingers with strawberry Quik again. Those looking for fries as a meal instead of a gluttonous sin can feast on Peter’s Greek fries, another culinary cliché (feta cheese and gyro meat on oregano-spiked fries) enlivened by cooling cucumber sauce.
Stavros is still stretching his chops, and the other meals don’t possess the same element of reinvention as his fries. But since the restaurant is just one guy depending on every satisfied customer for his livelihood, each item receives the care that Stavros would’ve put into a meal at the Ritz-Carlton. A simple patty melt transforms into a Rockwellian ode to all that is great about American food: crunchy rye bread, with melted cheese bubbling from within the slices, the onions nearly caramelized, the Angus patty grilled to order. He slices tomatoes to order, and chops lettuce into thick, crunchy, refreshing strands. In the hands of anyone else, a breakfast burrito is just a tummy stuffer; in Stavros’ hands, he takes French fries and cooks them as if they were hash browns before stuffing them inside. A burger, simple and fat, tastes simply tremendous—just don’t let the gas fumes get to you!
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Best of all? The tacos, sizable and delicious, only set you back a buck. Fill up your tanks with the necessary gas here—unleaded for the car, food for your gut.
Peter’s Gourmade Grill, 16851 McFadden Ave., Tustin, (714) 599-3866; twitter.com/gourmadegrill.
This column appeared in print as "Gas-Stop Gourmet."