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Recalling Big Al of Ashland burger fame

Over nearly half a century, “Big Al” Carver became an Ashland legend for his big, mustachioed smile, irrepressible support of Grizzly sports, his love of hot-air ballooning, his annual tennis tournament, and a highly successful “Big Al’s” burger joint, which he opened on North Main Street in 1973.

Surrounded by his family and Donna, his wife of 58 years, Big Al died Sept. 7, at age 88. Overnight, the curbside Big Al’s sign became festooned with flowers.

The restaurant, sold in 2000 to Arturo and Glorea Pascual, continues in its 46th year, still sporting the “Big Al’s” moniker and still famous for its secret tangy mustard sauce on the burgers — a recipe many tried to copy but couldn’t, said Donna, in a 2013 Tidings story. Only the Pascuals know how to make it.

Big Al was a photographer in the Navy and took many now-historic town photos, mostly of Ashland High teams, which still plaster the restaurant walls.

He owned and ran up to five restaurants in the valley at times, including Mon Desir, now gone. Aside from his positivity and expansive personal warmth, the key to his success, said Arturo, was that Big Al found the best formula and didn’t monkey with it.

“He was very open to everyone, always there with a smile,” said Arturo. “Running the place was hard for me at first, but he said, ‘You will make it, because you are a good guy, so don’t worry.’ He said keep the food you have, don’t serve alcohol because that’s problems, and never let in politics.”

Arturo did augment the menu with some Mexican food, prepared by his wife and their chef of 17 years, Ricardo Nieto.

Big Al’s passing brought an outpouring of memories on the Facebook history page “Ashland Oregon, Then & Now.”

“Spent a lot of time there in college. Thanks for the memories, Big Al,” wrote Rick Miles.

“RIP Big Al, best burgers ever,” said Terry Heiman.

Nick Beshara David wrote, “Al invited me into his office (the ladder-accessed loft in the middle of his restaurant) when I was about 5. He so graciously showed me his hot air balloon photos and told me stories. He will be remembered!”

Darcy Noyes said, “He was a wonderful person. We loved it when his hot air balloon landed in the field behind our house, our kids were so excited.” Colleen Carte wrote, “R.I.P. You are part of my cherished childhood memories.”

Matt Matthews said, “I had plenty of Heymakers (ham-cheese-egg sandwiches) through the years. Played tennis with Al, too. Nothing but good memories!” Darin Rutledge said, “Ah, bummer. He was a legend!”

Jennifer Franklin Gardiner said, “This makes me so sad. I used to work there. He was sooo amazing.” Carolyn Kennedy said, “Tom and I went up in his beautiful balloon several years ago. Was a beautiful experience.”

John Petersen wrote, “He personally handed me the first (of many) trophies won at Big Al’s Tennis Tournament. It could have been a Northwest Tour Tournament — with prize money, top open players, etc. — but advisers talked Al into rejecting the offer. It is ... a nice little hometown tourney. Mike Horten and a crack crew ran it like a Swiss watch back in the days of 400 entries.”

Renee Kimball McKibben said, “As soon as I got my license, my mother would send me for hot fudge sundaes. And I loved their pastrami burger! An awesome place run by a really great guy!”

Customer Pam Shrader said, “This was my favorite hangout when I worked at Ashland Life Support in the ’80s. He would always check in with you and always had a smile and a home-cooked meal. He supported a lot of sporting events and always donated to helmet safety and drunk driving classes. A warm face and a hot meal — that was Big Al.”

LaDan Alizadeh wrote, “My mom and I used to go there when I was a kid. I always loved the oval-shaped lollipops they had at the counter, I think they were homemade. Big Al will never be forgotten, and he certainly will live on in all of our memories.”

Laura Koken Conner said, “Sad to hear this news. I was one of Big Al’s first employees when he took the place over from the Heilmans. I can hear his voice in my head now. Such a great guy. Always positive, laughing and making work fun.”

Shona Stargill wrote, “All of my kids grew up at Big Al’s. For years my daughter called it Big Owls. Blessings you gave so many.”

Jeff Miles said, “thanks for all the sweet memories. There are so many!”

Big Al struggled with Alzheimers at the end of his life. Arturo flashed a selfie with Big Al, taken at the restaurant only a few weeks earlier, noting, “He wasn’t sure who I was, but he smiled and said, ‘I know you are a good guy.’ He was like a family member to me and my kids. I’ve never seen him mad. He was always positive, and all the advice he gave me was right.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

ashland Tidings/File photoAl and Donna Carver eat lunch Friday at Big Al's in Ashland in 2013. The couple opened the restaurant in January 1973 and sold it to Arturo and Glorea Pascual in 2000. Al Carver died Sept. 7, at age 88.
Jamie Lusch / Ashland Tidings Gloria and Arturo Pascual, owners of Big Al's in Ashland, share stories about “Big Al” Carver at their restaurant on Thursday.