We just returned from an overnight adventure that included spending the night in Isleton; a long-slumbering California Delta town. No Starbucks. No Jamba Juice. No Big Macs! And I would like to say, this is a very good thing! The town is funky. No question about it. But in that funk, is the beauty of it all.
State Scenic Byway 160 cuts right through Isleton. And you can't hate the fact that it sits right on the Sacramento River. But then there's "downtown" Isleton. Sort of in a state of arrested decay, it never really seems to change. Ramshackle buildings (less than 5-feet apart) still have their corrugated metal shells with decades of rust. Many of the storefronts retain their historic flavor, but most were long-ago abandoned and stand empty.
Some are in the process of being reclaimed, with colorful exteriors, new windows and doors. But Isleton is waiting to awaken. The historc Hotel Del Rio is closed. Across the road, Isleton Joe's (aka Ernie's to those who know) is still doing a bustling business serving up steaming bowls of fresh crawdads and clams, and slabs of prime rib. Down the street, Delta Daze Inn and Rogelio's Dine & Sleep Inn, are reminders of another place and time. Not your Mobil 5-star experience, but places that retain a real and human factor. We spent a comfortable night at Delta Daze Inn, fell asleep to the sound of crickets and during the night listened to the howls of far-off coyotes. The owners, Jill and Bill, are East Coast transplants who discovered the good life in Isleton and share it with their guests.
More than one person told us that the Pineapple Restaurant has great Chinese food; and Muddy Waters cafe (across the street) is the local caffeine hang-out. "The old-time farmers came in and said they didn't want any of those foo-foo drinks. But within a month, they were drinking white mochas and Spiced Chai," said owner J.T. And there is a new art gallery, but on a sunny Saturday afternoon it was closed, along with many other businesses. The local "biker" club was open for business and a lovely pink Harley parked curbside was a reall show-stopper. Well, at least we stopped.
Amazingly though, this back-water town of less than 1,000 people is actually "world-famous" as the home of the Isleton Cajnu & Blues Festival. Not the oldest, but possibly the largest festival of its kind. Each year over the Father's Day weekend, the population of Isleton swells. They have played host to more than 100,000 people and served up more than 12 tons of those tiny crustaceans in a single weekend. Music -- jazz, Zydeco, blues. Dancing. Crafts. And food...lots of food...and plenty of crawdads. Y'all come on down!
We roamed the streets quite happily. At Ernie's (sorry, it will always be this to me), we shared some pleasant conversation with a couple from the Bay Area who were relocating a sailboat from the Delta to Alameda. We laughed over a couple of baskets of homemade potato chips and onion rings. "Part of the four food groups: alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and grease," said our new friend Joan Wetherell. And our young waitress? She proudly told us she'd been born and raised in Isleton and workin' at Joe's for more than a year.
It's Mayberry. It's Father Knows Best. It's life, the way it use to be. Though there's plenty of room for change, I hope it slumbers on.
And I hope to tell you the "rest of the story" that included a leisurely drive on the Delta Loop and possibly the tastiest BLT I've had in a long, long time. Let me know if you're interested.
Sadly, since being published, Ernie's/Isleton Joe's closed for good. We hope it will rise again to be a shining star of the Delta.