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Be careful filling your tank

I can't tell if Quaker Steak & Lube is ahead of its time or way behind.

Floridians have known the concept of restaurant as theme park for some time, but the gas station as restaurant seems new. The filling station theme keeps pace with a society that fuels as much as it grazes; the faux play with a brand name is pure millennial marketing.

That's enough to pack crowds into Florida's first taste of the steak and wing chain that got its start in an abandoned train station in western Pennsylvania. Yes, it eventually moved to an old service station and expanded to Pittsburgh Steelers games and 13 locations.

Though Quaker Steak started out making clever use of old buildings, the one in Pinellas Park unfortunately looks like a cheap imitation of a gas station built with children's plastic white and green blocks at too-biggie proportions. Inside, there's so much brightly colored stuff, guardrails between tables, grease dispensers labeled as wing sauces and shells of high performance cars and boats overhead, you may feel trapped inside a NASCAR pinball machine or a Cracker Barrel sports bar. The reproductions won't wow collectors of petroliana, but there is an old Kendall sign and a few vintage oil bottles with zinc spouts.

The gas station as restaurant isn't a new idea. Half the stations left are convenience stores with a Blimpie, Subway or Chester's Fried Chicken inside. Plenty of old buildings serve high octane and high fat, one of the best being St. Petersburg's Johnny's Mediterranean Restaurant and Pizza, which took out the Amoco sign and pumps just last year.

Retrofired hot rod and diner decor has been around for a while, too, and can be seen at Checkers and Pete & Shorty's replica of a small-town Buick dealership. Steak 'n Shake and hot-wired Sonic are still cruising. The granddaddy of all, Biff Burger, has been turning out burgers and fries 2 miles down 49th Street N since Jerry Lee Lewis killed his first piano.

Still, Quaker Steak brings a few fresh takes from the kitchen. Among the dozen flavors of wings, one is a Chinese style with soy sauce and sesame seeds, smart without jacking up the heat. The best wing I tried was "Louisiana lickers," which mixes garlic butter and a traditional hot sauce with a citrus kick. Others range from tasteful parmesan and black pepper to tasteless Atomic (150,000 Scoville heat units and served with a waiver).

Because grease is part of the gas station gag, frying is important, and Quaker Steak does show care, such as Japanese panko crust on fried zucchini strips and dill pickles. Both come out crisp and, if not light, not horribly heavy. Skin-on fries come out just right, but not so the onion rings. They are an inch thick and heavily breaded, but stacking them on a miniature "ONtenna"' doesn't make up for the crumby batter. I like mine thin with a flaky crust closer to onion straws or an onion loaf.

Quaker Steak offers mix-and-match combinations of wings and fried munchies, such as the munch bucket trifecta of onion rings, zucchini and cheese sticks. That may horrify some, but I'm disappointed this branch doesn't have Quaker Steak's most clever stunt: the Bucket o' Bolts, with onion rings, cheese sticks, curly fries, cauliflower and ravioli fried and jumbled together like a bin of loose nuts and springs in Pandora's toolbox.

Entrees get more wit in naming than preparation. Chop Shop Salad is a puny affair of iceberg, poor tomatoes and tasteless turkey that wouldn't satisfy a driving instructor, let alone an outlaw. Katy's Spaghetti and Meatball Pie sounds fun, but it's just an amorphous hunk of congealed casserole. There are steaks, but my Thunderbird was no luxury model, overheated and stripped of fat and flavor.

The best bet in solid food was appropriately a burger, a hefty one firing on all 8 ounces, but keep it plain. Flimsy bacon, cheese and mushrooms aren't worth the extras.

The pit crew is vast and seemed to hustle in the midst of competition, but someone needs to step on the gas and get the food out of first gear.

But we're in early laps now. The veterans are still far in the lead, by me, but it's too soon for the checkered flag _ or a yellow.

REVIEW

QUAKER STEAK & LUBE

10400 49th St. N

Pinellas Park

(727) 572-9464

Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.

Reservations: No.

Details: Credit cards; no smoking indoors.

Prices: $5.99 to $16.99.

Features: Outside dining.

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