Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Politically Incorrect

Part One
Yesterday, Chuck told you about Locke, CA, the town built by the Chinese for the Chinese. In 1915, Lee Bing and three partners constructed a building to be used as a restaurant. In 1934, Al Adami from nearby Ryde, CA, bought the business and became the only non-Chinese business owner in Locke. Al’s restaurant came to be known as “Al the Wop’s” and most local residents still refer to it in this way. Al was somewhat of a character and was known to cut off men’s ties (see the blue and white tie just to the right of center in the photo) and stir women’s drinks with his finger. Al died in 1961, but the restaurant goes on.

Do you go to Al’s for the food or for the experience? The answer is a little bit of both. The high ceiling is dotted with dollar bills. How did they get there? I haven’t a clue.

There is a semi-enclosed dining room and a large bar area. Every table has a jar of peanut butter, and jars are distributed randomly along the bar. The peanut butter is to be used on the fried bread (more on this later), but many patrons also spread it on their grilled cheese sandwiches.

We took a seat at the bar and except for one server, I was the only woman present for much of our meal. The menu is short – two sizes of steak sandwiches, a chicken and mushroom dish, a burger, pasta with red or white sauce, grilled cheese sandwich. All meals come with a bowl of iceberg lettuce-based salad with carrot, kidney beans, and garbanzo beans and topped with 1000 Island dressing. That’s the dressing – if you don’t like it, you don’t eat it. But in fact, it was a very good version of 1000 Island; the lettuce was ice cold and crisp, and the beans added a nice touch.

Chuck went with his old standby – a cheeseburger with fries. Even though Al’s is known for the stinky fries (covered with garlic and parmesan cheese), he chose the plain fries. Before the burger, he had a bowl of very good minestrone soup that was filled with vegetables and had an intense savory flavor. Very good soup indeed.

The burger came on the fried bread rather than a roll. Inch-thick slices of soft Italian bread are buttered on one side and fried face down on the flattop until crisp. What a great substitute for a standard roll. He ordered the burger medium and it came beautifully pink inside – almost verging on medium rare – and was juicy with great beefy flavor. The contrast between the crisp fried bread and the softer meat resulted in a mouth pleasing experience. I usually serve hamburgers on white toast, but will be trying them Al’s way. And the fries were hand cut, crisp, and not greasy.

Since I was in a place known as Al the Wop’s, I had to order pasta and chose the red sauce. This was a good version of the standard Italian-American ground beef-based sauce that was seasoned with bay leaf, oregano, and garlic and was chunky with tomato pieces. The sauce might not have passed the Mario Batali test, but I found it enjoyable. The sauce was served over a large portion (too large to eat in one sitting – leftovers for breakfast the next day) that was cooked perfectly al dente. And on the side, I got three large slices of the fried bread. Only one thing marred the dish. Tubular pasta has to be very well drained and this wasn’t. So the bottom of the plate was covered with a pool of watery red sauce.

Great atmosphere along with a great burger and almost great pasta results in a 4.0 Addie rating.

Part Two
As the saying goes: “If you haven’t been to Foster’s Bighorn, you haven’t been to Rio Vista.” Well, that’s not really the saying. I made that up. But Foster’s is legendary in this part of California and not entirely for its food. Chuck’s second-cousin Barbara Pauly lives in Rio Vista, and we joined her one day for lunch and sightseeing.

William Foster was an avid big game hunter and pursued his “sport” in Africa, Canada, and Alaska. He came to Rio Vista in 1931 and was a bootlegger on the run from Assistant DA Earl Warren (yes, that Earl Warren). He brought his restaurant and bar from Alameda and set about decorating every inch of space available with his mounted animal heads and photos from his hunting trips.

One doesn’t go to Foster’s for the food, but fortunately our meals there were quite good. Chuck chose a very good hot pastrami sandwich on marble rye with a side of fries. As with my sandwich earlier in the week, the kitchen heated the pastrami just to the point of melting the fat and infusing the meat with flavor.

Barbara had the Shrimp Louie salad – small bay shrimp atop a bed of lettuce with tomatoes and red onion rings and served with “Louie” dressing. This dressing has a base of chili sauce and mayo, and to me, is a cross between 1000 Island dressing and a Louisiana type remoulade (without the spicy Creole mustard).

I had an unfortunate experience a few weeks ago with calamari (I spared you the ugly details), but was still intrigued with the calamari strip appetizer. So, throwing caution to the wind, I ordered it with a small dinner salad. The salad was salad – lettuce, tomato, red onion with an excellent ranch dressing.

The calamari was four giant strips from a calamari steak, each about an inch wide and half an inch thick. Our guess is that the calamari was pounded to tenderize it before battering and frying, and tender it was with a mild and sweet flavor. The coating wasn’t a beer batter, it wasn’t a tempura batter, and it wasn’t a crumb coating. But it was thin and crisp. The calamari came with a cup of red seafood sauce (I didn’t like it) and a cup of an herby tartar sauce (I loved it). Gone is my memory of the awful calamari.

A very good lunch (4.0 Addies) in a very “interesting” atmosphere (3.0 Addies) for a combined 3.5 Addie rating.

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