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Oil Be Back

Who says you can't deep-fry Hostess cupcakes?

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If dreams were transformed into food, they'd be deep-fried. Waking-world food can't look or feel or taste like this: not anymore, not here. We blink, we blush, pretending not to see the morsel batter-swathed and bathed in boiling oil that floods its pores and gushes at the slightest touch, disgorged like a dream-cache of liquid gold. We tell ourselves it has nothing to do with us, this morsel whose weight its immersion multiplied, transmogrified into a saturated prize. Oil pulses out, soaking paper and sleeking skin in that runaway, space- and time-defying dream-cadence. I'll fill you, vows the oil, and your mind says "No" but your mouth says, "Yes, yes, with you I could withstand blizzards, yes."

The restaurant that Steve Yankos opened this spring really is called the Deep Fried Twinkie & Pastrami Shop. It has a cult following, and it occupies two corners of the convenience store at a Valero station that sells Fremont's cheapest gas. Its menu includes deep-fried hot dogs and sandwiches, deep-fried Hostess treats, and deep-fried cookies, although some customers bring over their convenience-store purchases for a quick fat-bath: frozen pizza, for instance, and packaged pound cake. Not so long ago, Yankos battered and fried a Slim Jim.

At a certain point in life, you come to think you've tasted everything. You wish it wasn't so, but with all that kimchi and mochi and blood sausage stored in your memory banks, even stuff you haven't tried before evokes something you have. But then you eat a deep-fried PB&J.

Evoking jelly doughnuts, suggesting the most emollient Viennese pastry, sprinkled with powdered sugar to effect a Monte Cristo, it soars clear of all three, emerging only as itself, a tender pouch releasing hot, sweet, salty, creamy swirls. In a society where little is forbidden anymore, what remains to shame and thrill us besides deep-fried food? And not just food but name-brand, corporate, 1960s-lunchbox food?

Yankos and his wife, Cathy, first came to love deep-fried cuisine in Las Vegas, where such food is a veritable genre. They sold fried creations at Las Vegas' annual San Gennaro Feast. But their move westward yielded an unnerving jolt.

"We love to eat. But in the Bay Area, it's hard to find good food," Yankos laments, spreading his arms wide at one of the squeaky-clean tables near the gas station's window. "I mean, our kind of food." He grins. "Very health-conscious is the Bay Area."

Where, he wondered, were the garlic fries? "And to get a decent calabrese, I had to drive from San Jose to Top Dog — fifty miles." As for a deep-fried ham-and-cheese, don't even try. Determined to fill that niche, he searched Fremont for vacancies. Now the soy oil burbles alongside a pinned-up fan letter from a local high-school girl who gushes: Your food changed my life. This is a universe where Hostess cupcakes are dipped not entirely into batter, then fried such that their distinctive chocolate-with-white-squiggle frosting stays untouched. Coated Chips Ahoy cookies go chewy-soft, a bit mushy, their chips diffused. Deep-fried, a Twinkie loses the angel-cake lightness that was once its signal quality and — cream filling melted, gone — becomes something darker. If a substantial Twinkie's not subversive, then what is?

Bananas are the most natural item that goes into the fryer here. Their sweetness caramelizes to a gooey ecstasy, "but the batter makes it resemble an acceptable nutritional foodstuff," Tuffy observed later. "It's just fruit and breading, see?"

Your mind snarls junk food, but is that just the Odwalla talking? The oil comes from soybeans, after all. The Yankos family pickles their own peppers and makes from scratch their own batter, their own chili, and the old-fashioned gravy that tops Pez-dispenser-sized fries served piping-hot by such bodacious basketfuls — "Warning! Large order!" reads the menu — that I wished they weren't made from frozen, pre-sliced spuds. (Yankos originally used fresh potatoes but switched after customers complained that the fries weren't crisp enough.) The breading recipe was chosen after extensive trial and error in search of what Cathy Yankos calls a "perfectly neutral batter, not too pancakey and not too waffley, neither sweet nor savory," thus suitable for turkey, Oreos, and peanut butter. Their labor paid off in a lightish batter whose texture and flavor do not overwhelm whatever it enrobes.

The raw batter contains no trans fats, Yankos says. Not that it stays that way for long, as the deep-fryer seals shut all its golden parcels, fusing coating to coated in a few sizzling seconds. Because oil transfers heat much more rapidly than air or water do, it cooks food faster. A 345-to-375-degree oil bath rapidly heats any water contained by food immersed in it, effectively steaming this food from within while creating a rush of water vapor that meets and resists the incoming oil, ideally preventing its full penetration. As the vapor escapes, a crust forms. Via a process known as the Maillard reaction, the intense heat causes carbon molecules in the sugars to combine with amino acids in the proteins, creating a distinctively "toasty" flavor, fairground fragrance, and golden hue.

Well, yeah, and you're like Ohmygod, I KNOW why this was fuel for whaleboat crews and fisherfolk: It goes down slick, then sticks, warming you with a break-the-waves bravado for which modern life provides no foil. For those who spend their days practically motionless, deep-fried food is a culinary artifact.

Not that this troubles the teenagers lining up here at lunchtime.

Vegetarians are out of luck here, although not everything is deep-fried (but the bacon-wrapped hot dog is). The double-dipped pastrami sandwich, a signature dish, bursts with succulent, black-peppery, sliced-paper-thin pinkness piled onto a soft so-so roll so mountainously as to shame your standard oh-but-they-serve-macchiato-too downtown cafe. Yankos chooses each brined navel-cut brisket — he calls it "the bacon of beef" — with care at one of several local packing houses, grilling the meat and dousing it twice in au jus. A yearning for exactly this treat, which he grew up eating, was another reason he opened this restaurant.

"If there was a good pastrami sandwich anywhere else in the Bay Area," he shrugs, "I wouldn't be here now."

But it is the fried food that keeps calling your name. Miles away, you sit up with a start and think: Did I eat that? Your mind says no but your mouth says yes with a sneaky scary defiance, yes yes and I liked it yes.

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