Henri does Big Al
In a world of corporate chains and big-box sameness, Big Al’s Drive In remains a classic
Big Al’s Drive In1844 Esplanade
Chico, CA 95926
Henri drove mournfully out The Esplanade the other day to bid a final adieu to the French Bakery. While it’s been some time since the little locally owned boulangerie closed its doors—and quit selling those divine baguettes and tarts—Henri had, until recently, held out hope that it might someday reopen, as it had before. In fact, I had seen construction workers and trucks (absolutely filthy, by the way!) on the corner and thought perhaps they were just doing a major makeover. A brand-new, improved French Bakery! Maybe it hadn’t gone belly-haut after all. How exciting!
Pas! It’s a Starbucks, “Coming soon,” and we should probably expect several more in the area before long. After all, Starbucks—les lapins of coffee shops—opens an average of one new store every day and, according to a recent article in Money Times, as of May Starbucks had almost 6,500 company-operated outlets worldwide, including Asia, in addition to more than 4,500 joint-venture and licensed outlets. “Coming soon” to an impoverished subcontinent near you: Starbucks will open its first stores in India in 2007.
But my farewell turned out to be more significant than I had imagined it would be. As I sat in my little Renault across the street in the parking lot of Big Al’s Drive In and toasted the French Bakery with a glass of Bourdeaux (which I had brought in a Thermos in case the worker men looked my way), it suddenly hit me: On the corner of Ninth and The Esplanade, right here in Chico, we have a choice: Corporate or local, new and featureless or established and full of character. Venti vanilla latte ($3.60) or large vanilla shake ($2.90).
Big Al’s is about as classic an American hamburger-and-shake drive-in as you can imagine—unintentionally retro, a breath of fresh air not only from the ubiquitous coffee shops but from general strip-mall and big-box sameness that seems to be devouring the country. You can almost envision a roller-skating carhop or Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard in the parking lot leaning against their shiny cars on a Saturday night in 1962 listening to Wolfman Jack introduce “The Stroll.”
Big Al’s has a walk-up window, as well as a covered seating area with three tables and about a dozen small booths. The walls of the seating area are decorated with neon clocks and photographs of cars that look like they’re right out of American Graffiti. (Big Al’s made its first appearance in the Chico City Directory in 1973, the year American Graffiti was released.) There’s also a framed copy of the article about Chico from the April 2006 Sunset that recommends Big Al’s.
Big Al’s offers several versions and sizes of burgers ($1.35-$2.75), in addition to corn dogs, delicious fries, the best softies in town and much more. Henri’s favorite item is the cheeseburger basket ($3.90), a quarter-pound burger—with pickles, shredded onions and lettuce, and Thousand Island dressing—and french fries, perfectly crispy and salty. With a large chocolate malt ($3.20), it makes for an excellent and very filling lunch.
Other popular items on the menu include the patty melt ($3.80, with fries), fish and chips ($6.75) and the classic banana split ($3.25). While I haven’t tasted everything, most has been respectable, oftentimes quite good (the burgers) drive-in fare, the only exception being a disappointing pastrami sandwich.
Big Al’s also serves a limited breakfast, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. (regular menu also available): a sausage patty or ham slice with cheese and fried egg on an English muffin ($1.85) and hash browns ($.75). Note: While the egg-and-muffin sandwiches at least approach wholesomeness, the hash browns are of the “bar” variety, a molded rectangular unit dropped into the deep-fat fryer. The good Dr. Epinards would be disappointed if he knew Henri had been eating them and would probably prescribe eight or 10 capsules of fish oil per helping. Très repugnant!