The hand-painted sign on the window read "Indian Food Buffet — Served All Day!" But we weren't parked in the lot of a suburban strip mall or in front of a cozy neighborhood restaurant. We were at the Phillips 66 Travel Center on the northwest corner of Interstate 25 and CO-119.
We were at the station to fuel up, but not on gas: We were here to eat. I'd spotted the buffet advertisement on a previous drive-by on my way to Longmont, where I was headed for lunch, so a stop was not in the cards that day. This time, driving back to Denver from Loveland, we were passing the 119 off-ramp during the dinner hour — and truck-stop Indian cuisine beckoned.
An Indian family was just leaving the building as we parked in front of the sign; more orange-and-green lettering on the window informed us that goat curry, chicken tikka masala, mango lassi and naan bread awaited inside. Stacks of firewood and a display of bright-blue wiper-fluid jugs flanked the entrance: impulse buys for the road-weary. Through the door, we found a cramped row of booths and tables behind a Colorado Lottery machine, but there was no sign of a buffet station. The only hot food on view were a few lonely foil-wrapped burritos in a glass case.
Still, the aroma of curry rose above the smell of pine floor cleaner. And past aisles of snack foods and car accessories, we finally found several stainless-steel pans holding various stews, seasoned rice and a few desserts. Through an open doorway, we spotted a cook chopping vegetables in a small kitchen in the back. We made eye contact, and he came out to help us decipher the sauces blanketing unknown meats and vegetables.
Goat curry and tikka masala were available, as promised, along with saag paneer, another chicken dish, lentils in brown sauce, what looked like a carrot salad, and some gulab jamun, little round pastry balls soaked in thin syrup. We pointed to what we wanted and the cook loaded up a couple of styrofoam clamshells, with only moderate success at keeping our choices separate, since the generous scoops of rice overflowed the container's compartments. Behind him, photos of individual dishes decorated the wall, an indication that entrees could be ordered separately for those not interested in the $10.95 buffet. On that wall, you also finally see the name of the eatery: All in One Restaurant.
We took seats at an odd little half-table with a view of the back of the lottery machine and sampled our haul. Everything was heavy on the salt, but a mélange of spices still came through, especially in the goat curry. The spinach in the saag paneer was dried out from its time on the steam table; hitting the buffet at lunch is probably a better bet. But the tikka masala was surprisingly creamy and fresh; perhaps we'd arrived just as a new batch was finished.
Was it the best Indian cuisine I'd ever had? No, but as truck-stop fare goes, it wasn't bad. It certainly stood out from the sea of fast-food burgers and convenience-store grub in the area.
Nav Singh, a native of India, has owned the gas station for the past thirteen years, and says he added the buffet seven years ago because "there's no other Indian food on I-25."
He hired a chef to cook what he says is food representative of India's Punjab region; family members help out at the station's cash register. Travelers coming off I-25 provide a steady trickle of business; fans from Longmont make the occasional trip for a buffet supper.
Gas station restaurants were once far more prevalent, before the rise of national fast-food chains and convenience stores that make grabbing a hot snack for the road easier than sitting down for a full meal. Although Singh's business looks like any other gas station, it came equipped with a kitchen and dining room when he bought it, so perhaps at one time truckers sat down here for burgers and fries or a Denver omelet with their coffee.
These days, though, you can fuel up with what's likely the best truck-stop Indian food to be found at any dusty crossroads along Colorado's many open highways.
The Phillips 66 Travel Center and the All in One Restaurant are located at 3815 CO-119 in Longmont. The restaurant is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily; call 303-776-9396 for more details.