Big Al’s Drive In makes Chico happy

A legacy of comfort food at Chico’s longstanding drive-in

Mariah Willis serves a tray of American classics.

Mariah Willis serves a tray of American classics.

Photo By matt siracusa

Big Al's Drive In
1844 The Esplanade
Open daily 10 a.m.-10:30 p.m.

Big Al’s Drive In

1844 Esplanade
Chico, CA 95926

(530) 342-2722

I once saw a man eating fish and chips at Big Al’s. He plopped the big, white Styrofoam container on a nearby table and opened the lid. Smells of fried fish and french fries, and piles of salty, greasy goodness poured out. He took a deep breath and dived in, dousing a thick chunk of golden-fried cod with a generous dollop of tarter sauce.

I kept that memory with me when I cruised into Big Al’s on a recent Sunday evening, already having come to terms with the fact I’d be eating salad for the rest of the week. I hadn’t eaten fish and chips in years, since my family-vacation days, when we’d order the dish from beach-side kiosks. I approached the landmark restaurant’s walk-up window and placed an order ($7.85), and added a large chocolate milkshake ($4.50). My buddies, fans of the restaurant’s patties, ordered burger baskets with fries for $4.65 apiece.

The evening was chilly, so we stepped inside the quaint indoor-eating area, a booth-filled, wood-paneled space that reminded me of a burger pit-stop for families traveling to the snow. The brown, comfortable booths and drive-in-themed décor, including framed photos of classic cars and signs that read “Happy Burger,” a reminder of the restaurant’s history in Chico, gave it a rustic feel. (Big Al’s Happy Burger was its original name in 1964.)

Our to-go food was ready in about 10 minutes. Once home, I opened my container and surveyed the fried mountain before me. After two large chunks of cod—with batter fried to a crisp and the fish warm, soft and flaky—I sat back and held my stomach. The fries were OK—some of them a little cold and tough, a sign they might have been waiting in a warmer for me to order them—but I was too full of fish to mind.

My chocolate shake (made with chocolate ice cream) sat in front of me with a long spoon bayoneted into the middle, taunting my full belly. I stuck the remainder in the freezer, and after a stir a few hours later, it returned to its original, glorious texture.

My friends liked their burgers, as expected. The patties didn’t drip grease down their chins as they chowed down, lettuce and tomato falling into their laps as they went.

I popped in for lunch a few days later and ordered a B.L.T. with no mayo ($3.99), and zucchini chips ($2.15), a new item I had seen advertised in the window during my previous visit. (Apparently, the chips were served “years ago” and were recently brought back.)

Within a few minutes, my order was packed up in a greasy white bag. The sandwich was prepared on dry, toasted wheat bread (no butter, which I appreciated, but I wished they offered sourdough) and I had to cut it in half myself, but the lettuce was generous and so was the bacon. I had to restructure my sandwich before diving in, though—the bacon was folded into a corner, and three slightly mealy tomatoes were dog-piled. In the drive-in’s defense, bad weather has caused a major shortage of veggies.

My zucchini chips were toasty on the outside and soft on the inside. I had to use a napkin after each bite, but the chips packed a lot of flavor when dipped into the side of home-style ranch.

Big Al’s is one of the restaurants where you know what you’re getting. The large menu plastered on the wall showcases most guilty pleasures: corn dogs, chili burgers, nachos, patty melts, and even tacos and a burrito. They don’t take cards, so make sure to bring cash!

Next time, I’m going to try the onion rings and a different variety of their famous shakes. I hear banana flavor is “a-peeling.”