Spotlight On… The Exit Zero Filling Station!
We don’t usually Spotlight a restaurant that’s only been open for a few weeks, but, then again, there’s nothing usual about the Exit Zero Filling Station. It’s not often that you’ll find a gas station that serves curry. In New Jersey. Owned by a Scotsman. Who’s primary business is publishing.
Yet, there it is, in all its clapboarded glory, spanning the block of Sunset Boulevard between 1st and Fow Ave, the Exit Zero offices overlooking the 2019 Cape-May-ian interpretation of a 50s roadside burger spot.
However, since four of their five tap lines are dedicated to Cape May brews — and owner Jack Wright has been a good friend to the brewery, otherwise — we decided to head down there last week to get the answer to that all-important question: …what…?!?
Jack’s wife, Diane, — save the John Mellencamp jokes for later — is a freelance writer for Exit Zero as well as the Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Marie Claire, to name a few. In fact, she was the very first writer of this blog.
“I’m on deadline with two books,” Jack says, “both of which are late, and the Exit Zero color issue, and yesterday I spent two hours trying to figure out what permits I need to file for a gas station with the state DEP. That was fun.”
The Exit Zero offices were originally in the “pretty little cottages” across the street. When the tea shop next door became available, the landlord approached Jack about taking over the spot.
“I went to Diane — who hates the restaurant business; she’s worked in it for a long time — and I asked her, ‘Should we do a curry restaurant?’
“She was like, ‘Hells no!’”
Yet… here we are.
At the time, there wasn’t a curry restaurant between Cape May and Egg Harbor Township, and, perhaps a little selfishly, Jack wanted to fill that void.
“It became a little annoying to drive 85 miles round trip just to get a bit of curry. It was a very solidly-researched business plan,” he jokes. “I didn’t have a clue if anyone else around here would like it.”
Running the spot over there for three seasons — “at a nice loss, but I got my curry” –, the restaurant got some serious accolades, being named one of New Jersey’s best thirty new restaurants in the state and receiving a glowing review from Craig LaBan at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Then, the investment group that ran the gas station across the street built a new building and approached Jack about moving his offices and the curry restaurant there.
“I said sure,” he says, “and I’ll take the gas station, as well.”
Jack’s vision was to capture the feel of an “American, roadside diner,” but with food that has a bit of an Asian flair.
“We do great burgers because that should be the American Dream, right?” he says. “But we wanted to keep the Asian food, so it’s a quirky roadside stop with great burgers, Asian food, and a gas station, because that all goes together. The retail store — a nice little gift shop that sells all our Exit Zero merchandise — then the magazine upstairs.
“It’s just a complete anomaly. We’re South of the Border but much smaller and without the sombreros.”
And with a liquor license.
“When we came here, we didn’t really know that a liquor license was an option,” Jack says. “But the investment group purchased the liquor license, and that made me feel like a kid in a candy store because I love liquor and I love what you can do with it: blending it with the food but also trying to come up with interesting cocktails.”
We handled the interesting beers for him: Jack has Always Ready, Cape May IPA, Cape May Lager, and Honey Porter on tap, as well as Coastal Evacuation and Devil’s Reach in cans. In addition, he has one offering from Big Brew.
“On my menu, I really wanted to say ‘Craft Beer’ and ‘Crap Beer’,” he jokes.
It’s extraordinarily flattering for someone like Jack to bring on nearly exclusively Cape May brews. To an extent, he dismisses the locavore movement as being somewhat cliche; however, he sees the value in keeping local.
“I wanted to support people who support me,” he says. “I kind of regard Cape May Brewing Company as a friend to Exit Zero.”
Furthermore, Jack liked the idea of dealing with only a handful of companies.
“I like the idea of a somewhat simplified menu,” he says. “I wanted to have a menu that was highly-curated, but also quite simple.”
“I’m glad that it’s local,” he says, “that’s one thing. But I wanted to support my neighbors because they support me. Nauti Spirits and Cape May Brewing Company put money in my pockets through advertising throughout the years, I’m going to put money back into their pockets. It’s symbiotic.”
As our food arrived, we wondered why Jack didn’t simply open a Scottish restaurant.
“Because no one would come,” he quips.
Scottish food has been ridiculed for ages — a line from Michael Myers’ first film, So I Married an Axe Murderer comes to mind: “I think most Scottish cuisine is based on a dare.” — and for good reason. Jack points out that the concept of “fast food” originated after the Industrial Revolution in Scotland.
“I guarantee you when I was growing up in the 70s, I ate more tinned and frozen food than anyone in America,” he says. “Everything was frozen or tinned or deep-fried. I never met a salad until I was sixteen.”
About 20 years ago, Scotland began to expand its culinary horizons beyond the haggis that Jack serves at his annual Burns Supper.
“A restaurant revolution happened,” Jack says. “All of these high-end Scottish restaurants opened over the next fifteen years, using amazing Angus beef, incredible oysters, langoustines, lamb, and it wasn’t all exported anymore. Now, The Three Chimneys on the Isle of Skye is one of the best restaurants in the world.”
“In Scotland and in Britain, people there eat curry like you Americans eat pizza,” Jack explains. “It’s a tradition. It’s a ritual. Going for a curry and a beer is such a British ritual, certainly a Scottish ritual.”
About fifteen years ago, curry officially became the most popular food in Scotland, Jack tells us. Apparently, curry is so prevalent that you can get a good one at the local supermarket.
“You go out to the grocery store and get great curries,” he says, “or you go out to dinner or you get it delivered. It’s just in our blood now. I guess Britain colonized India and that’s how that came about.”
Jack points out that another cafe in town has since opened, owned by actual Indians. They have the audacity to claim that they have the only “authentic” chicken tikka masala in town; however, a simple Google search will show you that the dish was invented in the very Scottish town of Glasgow.
“If anyone’s going to do authentic tikka masala, it’s coming from me, not you!” he jokes.
So, we dug in. With so many beers to pair, the table was overflowing with food. Luckily, Distribution Manager Justin Vitti, Sales Manager Richie Rallo, and Marketing Assistant Kristen Taylor were along to give us a hand — it was very much an afternoon of passing plates around ensuring that everyone got a taste.
First up were the appetizers, the Kracken Wings and the Mega Tots.
We paired the wings with Cape May Lager, and they definitely needed it! Jack tells us that the wings started off as a curry, but it was so hot that he’d give people a free t-shirt if they were able to finish it. But they were absolutely delicious, with the crispness of the Lager the perfect antidote to the jet-black curry sauce coating the wings. Ask for some wet-naps because your hands will be black.
The Mega Tots were up next: a huge bowl of tater tots with applewood bacon, green onions, goat cheese, grilled jalapeño, topped with a fried egg. So long as you avoid the jalapeño, these were a wonderful followup to the spiciness of the Kracken Wings, and the sweetness of Devil’s Reach played beautifully with both the creaminess of the egg yolk as well as the heat from the peppers.
“If you dip them in a curry sauce, it’s next to godliness,” Jack says.
The Lobster and Shrimp Mac-n-Cheese, paired with Coastal Evacuation, was surprisingly light. The cheese sauce wasn’t overwhelming, and it certainly didn’t inundate the delicate flavors of the seafood. Huge chunks of lobster and shrimp were nestled within mini shells, and Coastal Evacuation brought out the flavors of the seafood while cutting through the high fat content of the cheese.
“I always drink the Honey Porter with the Mushroom Masala,” Jack says.
Always trust the owner. Excellent combination. The earthiness of the mushroom paired fantastically with the roastiness of a porter, and the slight sweetness of the curry was well-matched to the sweetness of the honey.
“I’ve never eaten much curry,” Richie says. “Naively, I decided that I didn’t like it.”
The Coco Shrimp curry — wild-caught Mexican Paradise shrimp in a limey sauce with cauliflower and red peppers — was gloriously sweet and spicy without being overwhelming. Deliciously flavorful, the hints of pineapple, mango, and citrus zest in Always Ready was a perfect mate for the slight lime flavor in the dish. Add some warm, soft naan bread, brushed with olive oil and herbs, to complete the experience.
We sampled the Cray-Cray burger — lobster, fontina, caramelized onions, and thousand island dressing — substituting Exit Zero’s typical patty with the Impossible Burger. A vegan burger made of whey, it was truly impossible to tell the difference from beef.
“They engineered it at Rutgers, and it’s going to become one of the biggest things ever,” Jack says. “We had one sent back the other night. The woman said to the server, ‘I haven’t eaten meat in twenty-five years, and you give me a burger by mistake!’ I said, ‘No, I did not.’ She’s like, ‘You’re kiddin’ me.’ If you could have filmed that for a commercial for the Impossible Burger, it would have been perfect. She was furious.”
Ultimately, Jack wants to create a landmark at the Exit Zero Filling Station.
“I want it to be this weird little place that you go to get gas,” he says. “I overhear people saying, ‘Wow. We have to walk through the gas station to get here?’ And then they walk inside and get what people are telling us are the best burgers in Cape May.
“This is weird, but it’s somehow okay to me. This is America. It’s a melting pot. I’m Scottish. Is it weird that we have Asian curries and great American burgers? I don’t think so.
“We’re weird in a good way.”
Swing down to the Exit Zero Filling Station at 110 Sunset Boulevard in Cape May. For more information, see their website at exitzero.us/filling-station or call (609) 770-8479.