Most couples establish their own routines. They have their own rhythms that may include where they eat, when they vacation, and what they read. My husband Lou and I are no different. We like to eat Israeli food on Tuesday nights and we usually order the same—shwarma for him, grilled chicken for me. Our regular waitress knows us so well that she brings us hummus and babaganoush as soon as we sit down. We love to see romantic comedies—but only at the discount theatre on Cedar Lane in Teaneck. In the winter, we vacation someplace warm—typically in the Caribbean. For every seven days we’re away, Lou plays golf three times. And, each Monday, in the summer, on our way home from the Catskills, we like to stop at the Velaro gas station in Monroe to eat eggs and drink coffee.
The Velaro tradition began in an unexpected way. My husband and I bought a new Volvo SUV that contains every safety feature known to mankind. As we were driving from Loch Sheldrake to Teaneck, the car apparently did not like the way Lou was driving. I was in heaven. I was thrilled that I had the good sense to buy a car that has a built-in high tech “wife” to nag him—taking the pressure off of me. In any case, the car suggested that he stop for a coffee break.
We pulled over at exit 130 on Rt. 17 and headed to Monroe for caffeine. I waited in the car for Lou to return with our drinks. But, about two minutes later Lou came out to the parking lot to get me. “You have to see this,” he said, and thus our Valero relationship was born. Inside, Lou directed me to the back right corner where there was a counter and we could purchase all manner of freshly made kosher food. The front of the building housed a convenient store with various packaged and frozen foods all sporting an OU. Gathered around were a handful of Satmar Chassidim eating soup and hot cereal. Not one to ever imagine myself actually eating in gas station, I decided that it looked clean and fresh and that I would give it a try. The other patrons were happy to recommend their Valero favorites to us.
Now every week I make the same joke about Lou only “taking me to the finest places.” But, when he suggests we go straight home or that we go out to eat when we return to Teaneck, I always tell him that I prefer eating at the gas station. I spoke to the owner of Valero, who while preferring that I not use his name, did say “we have had kosher food at Valero for about six years. People come from far away for our vegetable soup with knaidlach.” When I asked him for the recipe, he coyly answered, “I can’t tell everyone everything…otherwise, why would they come? I can tell you this,” he confides, “we sell more sandwiches than we do beer.” And they are open six days a week – closed on Shabbosim and Yomim Tovim.
Why has this ritual become so important to Lou and me? Well, the food is fantastic and Ari, the guy behind the counter, is the consummate Jewish mother type. He greets us with a smile, asks us about our week and then usually offers us a taste of something new he has concocted. This week, he wanted us to taste his Farina—too sweet for me. But, then he suggested preparing an omelet containing his freshly made potatoes and sautéed onions. I was in “eggcstasy.” They were hot, tasty and fresh. The potatoes were cooked perfectly and the onions were sweet and delicious. Sometimes we opt for an egg sandwich on a challah roll and other times we break into the lunch mode. We have tried salmon teriyaki, fresh tuna cakes, mashed potatoes, and veggie chulent (available beginning Wednesday afternoons) all with great success.
But, what I find so amazing about Velaro is that it exists at all. To folks who were born in the 1950s where there were few kosher restaurants—a kosher gas station in America still seems miraculous. When I asked the owner if he knows of any other such gas stations, he told me that he runs one on Route 59 in Monsey—the kosher Shell to Go! Other than those two places, he doesn’t know of any of others. “Everyone who comes in is surprised”, he says, “It’s a new thing, a Jewish business in a gas station.”
A generation ago experts predicted the gloom and doom for Orthodox Jewry. The proliferation of kosher restaurants has become one symbol of the rebirth of Jewish observance in this country. Without a doubt, those who tried to look into their crystal balls fifty years ago never could have foreseen the advent of a place where we could fill up our cars and our stomachs at the same time.
Debby Flancbaum is the author of The Jewish Woman Next Door (Urim, 2007)
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