A few months back, Jose Lupian’s mom was the burrito queen of a Valero in Old East Dallas. With soft flour tortillas folded neatly around scrambled eggs and, for example, sliced cactus that’s been grilled against serrano chiles and onions, these burritos are spicy and rib-sticking feats of few ingredients. You’ll find Maria Elena Lupian’s handmade burritos, each steaming hot and bundled in foil early in the morning (the store opens at 6:30 a.m.), in the corner of the convenience store just off Interstate 30. Usually you’ll find her food. But lately, Maria Lupian hasn’t been able to cook up anything at all.
Three months ago, she found a silver dollar–size welt on her shin that announced itself as the necrotizing bite of one of the deadliest spiders in the world, the brown recluse. Pain from the skin-killing venom rocketed through her leg. She was hospitalized, and recovery is still ongoing. As Jose tells it, she’s eager to get back to work.
“She’s the one that taught us,” says Jose, humble apprentice to the burrito master. “But I like to cook. I like to put my style in everything.”
In between the breakfast and lunch rushes at the humbly named Pupusas To-Go, he seems plenty happy, enraptured by the hissing griddle inside the kitchen of his mom-and-pop shop set inside another mom-and-pop shop (Tony’s Neighborhood Food Store) at the Valero gas station. Tony’s is a mini utopia of imported Mexican snacks and candy, including a Wonka-like fest of sour candy straws, conchas, and duros. And O Chicharrones Tree! How lovely are thy fried branches! Bagged pork rinds are everywhere, including a few bundled with a bottle of La Botanera hot sauce, dotting the racks adjacent to the Doritos. Free slot machines sit against the windows, which have a perfectly steamy view of the elote cart parked on the store’s sidewalk. If Bob Ross had painted the joint, he’d surely have called it a happy little gas station.
Jose Lupian has done this kind of work before. Lupian learned to cook at a taqueria in southeast Dallas, just a few miles away, when he was fourteen years old. His time in the kitchen stuck with him for years, bubbling up through various career changes. Before taking over his mom’s gas-station kitchen, he worked in real estate, rewarding clients at closing time with the crispy outsides and pillowy insides of his homemade, Salvadoran-style pupusas. You’ll find them now starring on the menu at the shop—round, griddle-seared masa discs stuffed with molten cheese, beans, pork, or chicken, and topped with plenty of shredded and pickled cabbage and salsa that will light you up like the Griswolds’ house at Christmas. They’re just over a buck apiece and available starting in the early a.m.
Jose Lupian and his wife captain the kitchen for now, and hope to open up their own brick-and-mortar in Dallas as soon as possible. In the meantime, the pupusas and burritos aren’t the only reason to stop in. Do not miss the drop-dead-simple cheeseburger basket. For pocket change, Lupian will sear a beef patty on the griddle, each burger made to order and topped with white onions, sliced tomato, mustard, mayo, and dill-pickle relish. The cheese drapes over the edge of the patty like the clock in that Dalí painting. The beef juices glisten against the toasty bun. Then the burger gets dropped into a container with two heaping handfuls of crinkle-cut fries. Lupian flashes these previously frozen bad boys to just the right level of salty, golden crunch, then dusts them with a sticky salt-and-sugar mix.
It’s a fast-food feast that’s better than the offerings from any big-name chain around, and that’s the whole point. At this East Dallas gas station, food is made quickly and with simple ingredients—without sacrificing the mom-and-pop neighborhood warmth that goes into it. In other words, the Lupian family shows up to make the kind of food they would enjoy eating.