Last summer I told one of my editors that I would be traveling through northern California if they needed any content from that part of the state. They did. The publisher had reportedly fallen in love with a restaurant called, “Al The Wop’s” in Locke, California (just south of Sacramento) and wanted to devote a bit of editorial space to telling its story. So in between a quick trip to San Francisco and a weeklong vacation in Yosemite, my husband and I drove through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and found the Locke Historic District tucked away just beyond the Sacramento River. It was like visiting a movie set depicting an era gone by, which is probably why it was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1970. It preserves a rare slice of history.
Locke was founded entirely by Chinese immigrants. Originally, the Chinese provided a great deal of the levee labor force, but by the time Locke was built and populated, most of the Asian residents were farm workers. After a fire destroyed much of the Chinese district in nearby Walnut Grove, residents obtained permission to build on George Locke’s land and the district was born. Restaurants, bakeries, gambling halls, boarding houses and brothels were only a few of the establishments that catered to the town’s Chinese populace.
This is pretty much Locke in a nutshell.
In 1934, an Italian named Al Adami opened the first non-Chinese restaurant and bar in the area; it quickly earned the nickname Al The Wop’s.
When Al got tips, he’d stick a thumbtack through the bill and use a quarter to flip it on to the ceiling. Once a year he’d take all the money down and treat the community to a dinner of liver and onions. It’s still an annual tradition.
You know how a lot of steak joints have ketchup and A-1 on the tables? This is Al’s equivalent. Up until 1979, the only thing Al’s Place served for lunch was a New York strip steak. A local crop duster used to bring in peanut butter and jelly to enhance the toast served with the meal, and when he finished eating he’d leave the “condiments” on the bar. Locals told me that today it’s common to slather your steak in the PBJ that sits on the bar; when I looked at them like they were crazy, they told me not to knock it until I’d tried it. Maybe next time.
Al didn’t think much of formality. When patrons came in wearing neckties, he’d take a pair of scissors and lop off a piece.
Locke isn’t a location I’d recommend as a destination in and of itself, unless you’re in to Chinese American history. But if you’re in the area it’s worth a stop. If nothing else, the tipsy locals will give you a warm welcome and tell you a story or two. And of course there’s always the PBJ steak.