It’s 7 a.m. on a Wednesday and I’m about to eat breakfast at a gas station in the heart of Walla Walla, Washington… and I couldn’t be more excited.
As I enter the Cenex station’s convenience store nothing appears out of the ordinary. I see fridges full of soft drinks and shelves full of snacks. A line of customers has formed at a checkout counter. Even the deli off to the side fits into the general aesthetic—with the exception of a chalkboard menu that feels a little too hip for a gas station. For the past four years, this relatively nondescript spot has been home to Andrae’s Kitchen, one of the best places to eat in Walla Walla. It’s safe to say that owner and chef Andrae Bopp has the most impressive culinary pedigree of a chef working out of an active gas station in the U.S.
I met Bopp the previous night in a bit of a haze, enjoying his dishes at the music-focused winery Sleight of Hand. The delicious food went down as easy as the awesome wines, and this morning I find myself needing a serious breakfast. Luckily, the tall, affable chef emerges, explaining his breakfast specialties: huevos rancheros, smoked brisket hash, and, the biggest star of the morning, breakfast poutine.
“Ending up in a gas station is kind of a backwards road to travel,” Bopp says. “Most people start at what would be perceived as the bottom and then want to finish up in Michelin three-star restaurants.” His career has followed the opposite trajectory: He graduated from New York City’s French Culinary Institute in 2003 before working in hype-worthy spots like Balthazar, Danube, Bouley, and Le Bernardin. In 2004, at the suggestion of a friend who told him that Boise, Idaho, was “ripe for the picking,” Bopp opened a fine-dining establishment in Boise called Andrae’s. Running an acclaimed restaurant in the region helped introduce Bopp to a new passion: the wines of Washington, especially from the Walla Walla Valley.
When his lease was up in 2008, Bopp began plotting his next move by powwowing with a few of his winemaker friends. “I floated the idea of ‘Hey, if a guy was to move to Walla Walla and open up a business based on catering food to wineries, do you think that would be a viable business?’” Bopp says. “All three of those guys were like, ‘I don’t know if that’s such a great idea.’”
Bopp, a self-described “riverboat gambler,” decided to go for it anyway, and opened a food truck in Walla Walla, a concept that was pretty unheard of in that area in 2010. When he wasn’t catering wine events, he opened for the general public, again garnering acclaim. After a local Cenex gas station manager suggested his establishment was an ideal spot, Bopp started parking his truck there in 2011. “We had a line through the parking lot most every day for lunch,” Bopp explains. “And the general manager of the whole operation came out and wanted to know if I had any interest in moving inside and taking over their convenience store deli space.”
But Bopp was reluctant. “At this time there were no restaurants nationally that I knew of doing kickass food out of a gas station,” he says.. “There are places that were at one time a gas station and now they’re a restaurant, but I couldn’t find any examples of a restaurant being inside a convenience store.” Again, he consulted his friends and family about this proposition. “There wasn’t one that said, ‘I think that’s a good idea.’”
Yet here we are, and I am staring down the best gas station food I have ever seen, down-home comfort cooking prepared with a Michelin-star pedigree.
Before moving in, Bopp was allowed to completely overhaul the kitchen to fit his needs. Last summer, he even added a custom-built smoker out back. It’s the key to nailing dishes like his mouthwatering brisket hash. “We cure and smoke all of our own bacon; we make all of our own ham. We grind all of our own sausage for sausage patties,” he says with great pride. “We do real East Coast-style pastrami out of the smoker, where it’s brined for up to two weeks and then smoked at a specific temperature that we like and then finished over a water bath.” Recently, he even purchased three whole hogs and is planning on butchering the animals on-site, something you probably wouldn’t want to hear about at most gas stations.
His breakfast poutine doesn’t only pack a surprising depth of flavor; it’s also just what I need after a long night of drinking. “I’d never seen anything like it when we did it in 2012,” Bopp says. “We took our breakfast gravy, which has our house-made bacon, our house-made sausage, and our tasso ham in there, and made gravy with that. Mix it with the fries and the cheddar cheese and put a sunny egg on top. It’s become a hit here because obviously we have a lot of wineries in Walla Walla, and so after maybe a rough day and night of tasting and traveling to and from wineries, and maybe over-imbibing a little bit, it’s one of those things you can come and get in the morning and it kind of fixes that, if you know what I’m saying.” Oh, I know what he’s saying, that’s for sure.
Possibly the best part of stopping by Andrae’s Kitchen for breakfast is that you don’t have to worry about when you get there: They serve their morning menu all day, seven days a week, from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. (except on Sunday, when they close at 4 p.m.). In fact, your only worry may be a possible wait. Though Bopp’s restaurant might be a secret nationally, the locals definitely know where to find it. “Business has been on a steady incline year after year after year,” he tells me. “There are certain days for lunch it’s so busy and so packed that people will walk in the door and just go, ‘Uh yeah…. this ain’t gonna work out so well.’”
But trust me, it’s worth the wait. And you can always kill some time by filling up on gas.