January 30, 2023


World's finest Food

This beloved Northern California restaurant has a controversial name. Does it matter?

When I first saw its name, I laughed. In California, in the year 2021, when colleges are being renamed, statues righteously taken down and Disneyland reimagined in the furtherance of anti-racism and inclusion, could there really be a beloved Bay Area institution called “Al the Wop’s”?

Staring at it on an online map of the Sacramento River Delta, I zoomed in on Locke, Calif., population “between 70 and 80 people.” Something about its location — on the dry side of a levee, amid a tangle of root-like tributaries, surrounded by towns I’d somehow never heard of — seemed mysterious. I was overcome by a desire to get in my car and drive. But the state was in the midst of a COVID surge and vaccines weren’t yet widely available, so my visit would have to wait. 

Several months later, on a sunny Friday afternoon, I finally made it to Al’s. I stood out front staring at its red-and-white facade and hand-painted lettering. Its brick red batwing doors with diamond-shaped windows were like exaggerated portholes to a place every bit as captivating as it had seemed from afar.

Welcome to Locke, a historic Chinese settlement in the Sacramento River Delta. 

Welcome to Locke, a historic Chinese settlement in the Sacramento River Delta. 

Freda Moon

But as a West Coast Italian American, “the Wop” in Al’s name had the dual effect of delighting and disorienting me. I’ve always felt a bit disconnected from my guido identity. So much so, I had never even heard most of the many anti-Italian slurs, including wop. The word, which is said to be derived from the southern Italian word for guappo, is a name for both a proper noun referring to a notable mafia-like organization and an insult with associations somewhere between swaggerer and scoundrel. It is not, according to the Atlantic, an acronym for “without papers,” as is commonly thought. 

My own associations with Italian American culture — theoretically, my culture — was a mix of stereotype and something deeper. Red sauce restaurants, the non-reality of “The Jersey Shore,” Madonna’s sexy Catholicism schtick, the Mario Brothers of my Nintendo childhood, the shame and hurt my mom carried from being an alienated “ethnic” in a deeply bigoted and anti-immigrant 1950s Oregon. 

All of this drew me to Al the Wop’s more than it repelled or offended me. 

A Delta character

Based on its name and online comments, which name-dropped favorite bartenders and shouted out the kitchen’s most distinctive dish, I knew it was the kind of place dripping with history and frequented by dedicated regulars. (The dish? A pile of peppers served with a squat tub of peanut butter, $2, or free with purchase.) But it wasn’t until I walked inside that I appreciated the restaurant-bar’s place in this tiny Delta town. 

Al's is a local hangout and destination for bikers, boaters, history buffs and dive bar enthusiasts. 

Al’s is a local hangout and destination for bikers, boaters, history buffs and dive bar enthusiasts. 

Freda Moon

It’s one of the few operating businesses remaining in Locke, a place built in 1915 after a fire devastated the nearby town of Walnut Grove. It was a village for, and by, the Chinese workers who constructed so much of the state’s railroads, tunnels and levees. One of the more recent of California’s rural Chinatowns, the community’s population went from some 1,500 at its peak to fewer than 100 today. Of those who live there now, only 10 Chinese residents remain. 

In 1990, Locke was made a National Historic Landmark. While not quite a ghost town, it has that deserted, frozen-in-time feel. Its buildings seem to be slowly collapsing in on themselves, its sidewalks in such disrepair that there are signs along its one-lane main street admonishing the local representative to do something. More storefronts are empty than occupied. 

Not all of Locke's historic buildings have fared as well as Al the Wop's. 

Not all of Locke’s historic buildings have fared as well as Al the Wop’s. 

Freda Moon

One storefront that is not only open, but buzzing with a tipsy, late-pandemic energy is the town’s nearly century-old bar and restaurant, Al the Wop’s. Dating back to 1934, its founder Al Adami, who was the first non-Chinese person to own a business in Locke. Adami was reportedly a bootlegger during Prohibition who used his illegal earnings to start his business, according to the Delta Conservancy’s Delta Currents

Al died in 1961, but seems to have been quite a character. According to restaurant lore, he routinely took scissors to the neckties of patrons — a demonstration of the restaurant’s casualness. He also used the bills tacked to the ceiling (more on them to come) to fund an annual liver dinner in celebration of the townspeople, a tradition that continued until the pandemic. 

A historic dive bar gets a new lease on life 

Finally throwing open its swinging bar room doors, I looked up and around, unsure where to set my attention. The reality of Al the Wop’s was even better, and stranger, than I’d imagined. The space was a boozy, informal museum of town relics, crowded with tchotchkes, memorabilia, knickknacks and photographs. 

A sign on Locke's River Road advertising Al the Wop's, one block inland from the levee. 

A sign on Locke’s River Road advertising Al the Wop’s, one block inland from the levee. 

Freda Moon

The bar itself, a long dark wood counter lined with vinyl stools, was surprisingly crowded for 3 p.m. on a weekday. Al’s has become a destination for bikers, along with boaters, history buffs and dive bar enthusiasts. When I noticed a man at the bar wearing a Sturgis 2021 T-shirt, suggesting he’d attended this year’s event, I realized this bar may not attract the most COVID-cautious crowd, so I opted for a corner table where I could take in the scene at a bit of a distance. 

The bar has a smell I couldn’t quite place — somewhere between the faintest whiff of cat pee and generations of musty memorabilia. There are the lids of old wooden asparagus boxes with names like Early Bird, River Maid, and Stockton’s Pride above one window. Taxidermied bison, elk and deer gaze down from overhead. Dollar bills are mysteriously tacked to the tall ceiling, which is painted yellow, green and red. Trains of dollars, taped together hang like streamers, wave in the wind of the fans. The smell, which isn’t bad so much as transportive, seems natural in this place of sloping floors, Chinese lanterns, a mural of cowboys wrangling cattle and a cheeky “NO WHINING” sign behind the bar. 

Al the Wop's is a living museum of Locke artifacts. 

Al the Wop’s is a living museum of Locke artifacts. 

Freda Moon

The jukebox is about as chaotic as Al’s walls — Elvis’s “In the Ghetto” followed by Adele, Tiffany’s “Children Behave” leading to Iggy Pop, and Walker Hayes’s “Fancy Like,” which, to my horror, would be stuck in my head for weeks. This unpretentiousness is Al’s charm. 

“We have families that have celebrated for generations at Al’s. We know families where the parents met at Al’s. We want to keep Al’s for Al’s customers, for the locals, the farmers, the boaters, the bikers and the car clubs.”

The menu, like the jukebox, is an eclectic assortment of comforting Americana classics. It’s midafternoon, so I order a small “Hillbilly Chili,” which is made with chunks of pork and lima beans and topped with red onion and shredded cheese along with a small order of garlic fries. When it arrived, this modest order — served in a red and white paper basket — was about three times as much food as I was expecting and more than I could eat. 

A light afternoon snack of Hillbilly Chili and garlic fries. 

A light afternoon snack of Hillbilly Chili and garlic fries. 

Freda Moon

As I retrieved my food, the older man at the bar raved about Al’s fried chicken and proclaimed the $25 steak — The Big Ol’ Steak, as it’s called on the menu — the best in the Delta. “Beats the pants off Peter’s,” he said, referring to a more traditional steakhouse in nearby Isleton, where we’d planned to splurge on dinner the next night. (Instead, I returned to Al’s, that time for take-out fried chicken to eat with my kids at a picnic table in the Delta breeze.)

Other menu highlights include spaghetti and meat sauce — a house-made bolognese — served with salad and slices of extra thick-cut bread. The bread itself was a textural revelation: white bread that’s pillowy soft on one side and butter-crisped and grilled on the other. And there’s a frozen drink machine, churning frosé and margaritas: “It’s summer in a glass,” the woman at the bar said, “even though summer is technically over.” 

On Saturday night as I waited for our food, I ordered a margarita in a to-go styrofoam cup and listened as the locals at the bar lamented the loss of another longtime local institution, Giusti’s, which had recently been destroyed in a fire. Al’s, which was sold during the pandemic when it was “not in a good place in terms of traffic and business,” might have been lost too had a group of five decades-old friends not bought it at the end of 2020. One of the new owners, Greg Wellman, explained in an email that they planned to preserve it virtually as it was.

Recently under new ownership, Al the Wop's has been operating in Locke since just after Prohibition. 

Recently under new ownership, Al the Wop’s has been operating in Locke since just after Prohibition. 

Freda Moon

“We actually made the decision to buy last year around this time on a boating trip up the Delta,” he wrote. “All of us had been going to Al’s for years prior for car rallies, motorcycle runs or boating trips.”

When I asked if he had any favorite items among the artifacts, Wellman said, “There is so much to look at Al’s, it’s hard to say.” He mentioned a signed picture of former Gov. Pete Wilson sitting at one of Al’s tables, the prolific taxidermy and two fedoras that had once belonged to Al himself, which sit on the deer heads above the bar. “There is also a 1966 Harley Davidson Topper scooter, which is pretty rare,” he wrote, “and which blends the personal interests of some of the owners (vintage Italian scooters) with many of the patrons (Harley Davidson riders).” 

Taxidermy and tchotchkes crowd the walls at Al the Wops in Locke, Calif. 

Taxidermy and tchotchkes crowd the walls at Al the Wops in Locke, Calif. 

Freda Moon

When I followed up one last time, asking whether the slur in the bar’s name had caused controversy, I didn’t hear back. But by then, the question was an afterthought. I like the idea that Al had a sense of humor, about himself and others, and that the place he’d created feels like both a relic and a living, breathing, boisterous celebration of Delta life. 

Mostly, though, I was grateful the name, in all of its provocativeness, had drawn me there. 

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