Grab and Go

Snagging vittles from 7-Eleven is convenient, but is it wise?

click to enlarge BUY NOW, PAY LATER: Nachos slathered in "free" chili and cheddar that stays liquid at room temperature. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
BUY NOW, PAY LATER: Nachos slathered in "free" chili and cheddar that stays liquid at room temperature.

I set the cardboard tub of corn tortilla chips under the nozzle and reach for the square plastic button emblazoned with the glorious words "Free Chili." Yep, it's free, although I doubt the fine employees at this 7-Eleven would let me fill a Big Gulp cup with the stuff. Maybe it's never come up. When I hit the button and the machine spits chunky brown liquid at my nachos with a concussive "splort," I realize that there must be few people willing to hit the button a second or third time — free or not. I doubt that 7-Eleven is losing much money on this giveaway.

Actually, the chips are crisp and the equally "free" neon yellow cheese is so spicy that it's easy to ignore the unholy origins of "cheddar" that's still liquid at room temperature. I can even choke the inoffensive chili down, as soon as I'm able to overcome the scatological image of its dispensation. I normally don't eat at 7-Eleven, but sometimes desperation overwhelms common sense.

Obviously, the King of All Convenience Stores is not the place you go for good food. For late-night munchies when you're in no condition to drive to the supermarket — sure. For a sugar and caffeine fix on your way to work — sure. For some quick, pre-hurricane provisions, or during post-hurricane power outages — sure. Those are damn convenient reasons to shop at 7-Eleven. Sometimes, though, desperation engenders inadvisable behavior, and causes you to reach towards the bevy of prepared foods that the store offers.

Early on a Saturday morning, after a rough night downing martinis for this august newspaper, I make my bleary-eyed way to my local 7-Eleven for some donuts. These days, the "time to make the donuts" guy goes to work at a giant donut factory, churning out mass quantities of doughy confections that are shipped out — every morning, if you're lucky — to donut chain outlets.

That puts 7-Eleven on even footing with the big guys, and they take good advantage. Their Dreamm donuts are light and airy hoops, easily the equal of Dunkies or not-so-fresh Krispy Kreme. The cake donuts are crumbly and tender, and the fritters are moist, all coated in enough sugar to send an 8-year-old into an extended hyperactive fit. The coffee ain't bad, either.

I always prefer savory over sweet, though, so my eyes inevitably stray to the heated glass box on the counter. It's filled with early-morning fast food classics: egg, cheese and meat on a variety of breads. I can't get past the first bite of a soggy concoction created to compete with the McGriddle. The plastic bag it comes in is half-filled with a sweet brown liquid that is, uh, maybe a bit maply. Maybe. In any case, it only serves to make the egg-and-sausage-topped "cherry-nut muffin" as appetizing as wet Wonder Bread. Yum!

As I take a bite of a less offensive McMuffin clone, I'm struck by the odd steamy and stale texture of the bread, and the almost flavorless qualities of meat and cheese. It feels familiar but distant, like a horrible experience I subconsciously suppressed to maintain my sanity. I grab the wrapper and examine the fine print ... holy God in heaven, it's airplane food!

7-Eleven proudly declares that its food is prepared "locally." In this case, the local folk who make a lot of the sandwiches arrayed in front of me are corporate drones from a division of LSG Sky Chef out of Orlando, one of the largest manufacturers of airplane food in the world. Now that airlines can't afford to feed the passengers stuck on the tarmac during eight-hour delays, that food's gotta go somewhere. I guess.

Later the same day, I toy with a few lunch sandwiches. All the deli versions suffer from the same airline food taint — the bread is simultaneously soggy and stale, the lettuce is preternaturally crisp, and the meat is just a little suspicious. If your mom made a month's worth of brown-bag sammies using only ingredients purchased on eBay, then froze them until needed, they might taste like this.

After discarding the uneaten portions of "turkey and zesty havarti" and "pastrami and Swiss" that I sampled while sitting on the hood of my Hyundai in the pastoral 7-Eleven parking lot, I discovered something edible tucked into my bag, almost forgotten.

Squeezing a cold chicken parmesan sub between the hot surfaces of the store's panini grill for a few minutes turns the hoagie roll crispy, melts the cheese and warms the previously fried chicken. The Cuban is just as good, which is to say they're both barely adequate in a pinch.

In fact, hot foods are 7-Eleven's strong suit. Avoid anything that needs to be microwaved, especially the grainy, tasteless "cheeseburger" that is not quite up to bottom-tier fast-food quality, and head directly to the hot case. Everything your heart desires can be served atop the rolling wheels of culinary delight, as long as everything your heart desires can be compressed into an eight-inch cylinder.

Taquitos are the new, exciting innovation at 7-Eleven, concoctions of meat and cheese and fat rolled up in crispy, deep-fried tortilla shells. If you have good intestinal fortitude, these little torpedoes of fried delight aren't bad, although I would avoid any of the ones that are filled with cream cheese. What kind of cream cheese can sit on hot rollers for hours on end? The hot dogs, all from Oscar-Meyer, are actually tasty, as long as you can refrain from drowning them in the free cheese and chili.

I admit that, after a day of downing "food" grabbed out of cases at 7-Eleven, I am unable to summon the courage to try the gray-and-orange hotdog-shaped "cheeseburgers" spinning away in the case. Instead, I grab some fruit cups and a "chef" salad to appease my roiling stomach. Like all bad fruit salads, this one is a mass of unripe honeydew and cantaloupe topped by slivers of pineapple and a few grapes. At least the chef salad is fine, if you like a whole lot of crisp iceberg lettuce, powdery shredded cheese and diced deli meat. Fine, I guess, in comparison to everything else.

Several days later, my power inevitably fails when Wilma blows across a couple hundred miles south of us. Do I head to 7-Eleven for provisions? Nope. One day spent grabbing food from the cases at my local convenience store has taught me to stock my house and car with enough edible goodies to rival the most devout Montana survivalist. Desperation is no excuse for bad food.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.