In the heartland, where the towns that survive are built along the great and open freeway, no gas station is just a gas station. It’s the town square, the place everybody goes, home to fresh pie and stale coffee and an ever-changing cast of drivers who swing through once every week or so on their routes. In a work-strong country, it is stunning efficiency: Why not get your fuel at the same place as your car?

Portland doesn't have many of these places—Milwaukie's Bomber restaurant has ripped out not only the gas tanks, but the plane that used to float majestically over 99E—yet we stopped by our favorite gas-station restaurants in the city to get in touch with our roots.


Signal Station Pizza

8302 N Lombard St., 286-2257, signalstationpizza.com.

St. Johns' Signal Station Pizza is less a gas-station restaurant than a lovely homage to one. In the cramped ex-gift shop of a decommissioned fuel stop, Signal Station is bedecked on its exterior with the bygone glam of the roadside 1940s, while its interior offers the food of a county fair gone unaccountably twee. Artichoke-heart pizza by the slice ($4.10) sits on pagoda racks near bakery cookies and Blue Bunny ice cream by the scoop ($2.25). As in all of blue-collar Portland, the full-sized specialty pies ($10-$22) are often creative beneath the surface, with sauces ranging among garlic, pesto, bianca and barbecue. Signal Station doesn't make Portland's best pizza crust by a long shot—they're more into a heaped-up variety of toppings—but even if you live next door it feels like tourism to a forgotten age. Filled mostly with high school and college kids on dates, it's the intersection of beach town and small town at the edge of Portland.


Tammy's Pho

3323 NE Killingsworth St., 282-2077.

Oh, snap. This place is a true find. Along with serviceable egg rolls and teriyaki, this 76 station beer mart is home, every weekday before 4 pm, to its operators' sharp-salty take on pho ($6.50). Tack on the food order to your unleaded, and get a bowl of fresh-cooked beef flank and vermicelli in broth teeming with onions—a soup less umami-rich than it is floral with anise and scallion. Order it to go, and you can warm yourself on the road by sipping from its lidded plastic cup like it's a thermos full of Lipton. You'll feel comfortably at home even while driving far, far away.


Bonnie's Burger

1111 NW 21st Ave., 224-8438.

Bonnie's is a sparse, yellow-painted takeout spot inside an Astro station that serves food's version of Esperanto: a culturally agnostic array of burgers, grinders, gyros, udon, breakfast burritos, omelets and bento. All are welcome. Everything is served. There's Fox News on the TV, if it isn't Ellen DeGeneres. The teriyaki is a little rubbery, maybe, and so are the yakisoba and gyoza. But the curried rice is a gracious comfort, while a Western burger heaps with onion rings, bacon, sauce, veggies and a double stack of meat patties, all priced at a mere $7.95 with a hilariously wet bag of fries to boot. You don't really taste it, but it fills you up, just like the pumps outside. What elegance of purpose.


Daddy D's BBQ

7204 E 4th Plain Blvd., Vancouver, 360-892-4418, daddydsbbq.com.

Widely acknowledged as the king of gas-station barbecue in the wilds of Vancouver, Donnie Vercher of Lake Charles, La., presides over a cherry-wood smoker early each morning alongside the Shell station, cooking up apple-rubbed ribs ($14.99 for a half rack), or brisket he chops and stews into thin, tangy sauce. Sometimes he'll round up some gator, sometimes some boudin sausage. But no matter what, he'll tell you a story or six over his lunch counter inside the gas-station mini-mart. Treat it like a full-service truck stop and eat in. You'll feel like you've gone somewhere.


Hollywood Food Mart & Gas

1510 NE 42nd Ave., 287-0550.

Every mini-mart has its hot-rollered tacos and dogs. But the Hollywood Food Mart, at the Halsey Street 76 station, is the apotheosis of the form, distinguished not for quality but in the sheer shameless quantity displayed in its huge heated case. At prices that never crest $1.25, you get hot dogs, corn dogs, chicken strips, pizza rolls, multiple varieties of burritos for breakfast and supper, and pockets that are always hot alongside that country-store mainstay, the bag of jojos. Load up on junk and feed your friends for $10. The guy behind the register will only laugh at you a little for what you're doing to yourself.


Jubitz

10350 N Vancouver Way, 345-0300, ponderosalounge.com.

Jubitz, on the outskirts of Portland, is a completely self-sufficient village for red-state truckers who'd rather treat weirdo Portland like a flyover. The local-owned truck-fueling giant hosts a cinema, a FedEx office, a clinic, three delis, multiple arcades, a big ol'  diner called Cascade Grill, an outpost of Bernie's shoe repair and, of course, the Ponderosa, a boots-up country bar staffed with a fleet of women in jeans and cowboy hats, serving "one-pound margaritas," a drink called Angry Balls that mixes Fireball and Angry Orchard, and an artery-tightening Pondo Burger with a half-pound of beef stacked with onion rings, barbecue sauce and a two strips of bacon ($10.95). Those hankering for homestyle can get ribs, meatloaf, and spaghetti and meatballs. Late nights, the place packs with some of Portland's most raucous live country shows and swing dancing, including occasional afterparties by touring stars. Jubitz, like Georgia, is a state of mind. I leave a little piece of me there every time I go.