Big Al's continues to stick to a winning recipe

Al and Donna Carver eat lunch Friday at Big Al's in Ashland. The couple opened the restaurant in January 1973 and sold it to Arturo and Glorea Pascual in 2000. The Pascuals still serve the Carversí signature hamburgers and secret sauce. Julia Moore / Daily TidingsJulia Moore

Forty years and running, Big Al's Drive-In still is an Ashland staple — mustache and all.

"Big Al" and Donna Carver started serving their signature thick burgers, creamy shakes and crispy sides out of the original restaurant's walk-up window in January 1973, the same year Al Carver began growing out his finely twisted handlebar mustache.

The burger joint's hand-painted wooden sign has touted an oversized, orange mustache emblem modeled after the original owner's since the restaurant was remodeled in 1977, Al said.

"We never changed after that," he said. "Our menu stayed the same, and the quality of the food has always been good."

Not to mention "the pink sauce" recipe, Donna said, which was passed on to current owners Arturo and Glorea Pascual along with the business in 2000.

"The customers always tried to copy it, but they would come in and say, 'Donna, it doesn't quite taste right,' " she said. "It's our secret. ... We haven't told anybody the recipe except for Arturo and Glorea."

Before Big Al's, the restaurant was known as Heilman's Dairy Bar, said Donna, 75.

"After a few years, and we proved that we were going to be successful, the owners let us change the name," she said.

"That's when we started the tennis tournament," Al said, referring to Big Al's tennis tournament, which is set to run for a 38th consecutive year in Ashland during July.

Al, 81, still hands out trophies at the tournament.

Burgers and secret sauce aside, it's things such as the tennis tournament, Al's mustache-topped smile, or the Big Al's hot air balloon, which the Carvers sold in 1991, that longtime Ashlanders remember the restaurant for, said Carol Phillips, 69, who grew up a few blocks from what she calls the "best burgers in town."

Phillips and her son, Brian Phillips, 39, who now live in Phoenix, make a point of sitting down for a Big Al's burger every Friday, they said.

The restaurant changed hands a few times before the Pascuals stepped in, Donna said.

The first time the Carvers tried to retire, during 1995, the restaurant was turned into a short-lived sports bar.

"When we had the grand reopening, the community poured in," she said. "Everyone was so happy Big Al's was back."

As far as the Pascuals are concerned, Big Al's is back for good.

The couple's friendly customer service has become another of the restaurant's well-known characteristics, Brian Phillips said.

Interacting with customers is the Pascuals' favorite part of running the restaurant, they said, and they know most regulars by name.

"During the holidays, a lot of people come in that have moved away. They come back so happy to see Big Al's still here," said Arturo, 51.

When the couple purchased the restaurant, Arturo proposed changing the name and opening a Mexican restaurant.

"Glorea told me, 'No, everybody knows Big Al's,' " he said.

"I thought there were already too many Mexican restaurants," said Glorea, 44.

The Pascuals added a few Mexican food options to the menu and a few new burgers, but everything else is from the original Big Al's, they said.

On an average day, the restaurant flips about 200 burgers to customers, said Big Al's cook Ricardo Nieto, 36, who has been working alongside the Pascuals for the last 12 years.

"People love it here," said Arturo, working through dozens of orders during Friday's lunch rush.

"I hope we're here for a long time," he said, hugging two arms full of burger orders on his way to a packed dining room.

"There is nothing better ... believe it, buddy."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.


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