3687 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
A certain mystique developed around the Tractor Room from the day it opened. Perhaps it arose from the black velvet curtains inside the entry door, shielding the interior from prying eyes, or maybe it was the playfully old-fashioned masculine decor, with dark, button-dotted leather under dim lighting and an antlered stag's head over the bar. (The owners picked it up at a garage sale.) The menu proclaims the restaurant as the "Home of Bourbon and Meat." Yup, it's a double masquerade -- it's not just dressed up as a Montana hunting lodge, it's also playing a speakeasy -- even though it's perfectly legal and you don't need a password to get in. (A reservation is more apropos.) Sam Spade oughta be here, but he's tied up in Frisco, chasing a black bird and a bad redhead.
Under the same ownership as nearby Hash House A Go Go (Johnny Rivera and chef-owner Andy Beardslee), the restaurant took over the space vacated by Rice Jones when the rent shot up beyond reason. Tractor instantly began pulling in bushels of Hillcrest hipcats of all genders and legal ages. The night we went, the bar was packed with zaftig blondes and a few skinny Elisha Cook types, mainly paired or grouped like with like. Younger couples sat at the small tables near the bar, while larger groups and the older half of the crowd (including our gang) were seated on leather banquettes against the far wall. Contrary to early rumors, I saw nobody dressed to the nines -- fours to high sixes were more like it.
What drew me was a menu featuring game meats, including elk, bison, boar, and venison, all at pretty reasonable prices given their premium wholesale costs. I like game meats for their intense tastes and healthfulness, free from the chemical cocktails that make domestic animals fatten up fast at the price of flavor. I once wrote a meat-and-game cookbook that had to be delivered to the editor meat-by-meat. The only chapter that was any fun to write was the game chapter. (Well, the offal wasn't bad either.)
Given the owners' bent for heartland cuisine, I couldn't have chosen better dinner companions than the Lynnester and her mom, Mary Ann, rebel gourmets from northern Michigan. In their still-woodsy small town, the local motto is: "I killed it, honey, you cook it." And Lynne's cuddle, Samurai Jim, has a wild side of his own.
Since the Tractor pushes "honest cocktails," we began with a round of hooch. To our surprise, there were no sugar-bombs. (You're definitely not in the Gaslamp anymore.) My Ramos Fizz was the driest I've ever sampled, while Jim's "Prohibition Punch" was clean and refreshing, similar to the grown-up Plantation Punches of un-touristy Port of Spain. The Peach Bellinis that both Lynne and Mary Ann enjoyed were equally adult.
Our game hunt began with the appetizers. Crispy Elk Sausage Ravioli offered large, thin-enough pasta squares with crisped edges, stuffed with dryish ground elk meat and swathed with what seemed to be a cream sauce based on meat stock and spiked with tomatoes -- as far as we could tell in the Stygian darkness (it's surprising how much harder it is to identify flavors when you can barely see your food). The elk could've passed for lean ground round, with no distinctive wild flavor. Given the nonexorbitant price ($10), I guessed, correctly, that it was free-range farmed elk from New Zealand.
Wild boar and mashed potato spring rolls are sized for a hungry grizzly bear. The meat doesn't taste noticeably different from well-raised, well-stewed domestic organic pork. (The restaurant owners couldn't tell me whether the boar was actual European wild boar, aka cingale, ancestor of domestic pigs, or -- like most "boar" sold in the U.S. -- the feral descendants of escaped domestic razorback hogs brought over by the Spanish. They think it's the latter. Their meat wholesaler buys it from a game ranch in Texas.) The rolls were plated over chopped salad, a welcome blast of greenery in this fleshy feast.
Smoked salmon and rock shrimp cakes were so dry that we wouldn't have been able to guess what seafood they were made of. Mary Ann liked the toasted ciabatta under the cakes and the horseradish-cream streaks across the plate. But Jim found the chewy ciabatta literally hard going. "Ouch, my teeth are getting a divorce from my mouth," he quipped.
Fried shrimp cocktail bears the menu notation "IT'S GOT BOOZE!" Well, yes. You get two bread- crumb--battered, medium-size fried shrimp atop a layer of thick, acidic roasted-tomato sauce, which blankets a tall bed of ice. Alongside is a jigger of Blue Skyy vodka with spicy chipotle sauce lurking at the bottom. It's up to you to decide what to do with the BOOZE! When the dish made its way to me (third out of four), I tried a bite of the remaining prawn and then poured vodka on the rest of it, which gave it more flavor and enlivened the heavy sauce. But the dish seemed pointless -- 12 bucks for two shrimp and a hot shot?
A couple next to us were eating the two salads the menu offers. One of them tackled a large head of Bibb lettuce stuffed with blobs of Maytag blue cheese. "Glad I didn't order that," said Mary Ann. "I'd be intimidated." The other had the heart of romaine, of equal size but horizontally arranged, with Thousand Island dressing. "That one looks almost as scary," said Lynne.
There are two "signature" game meat stews -- the same stew with nothing changed but the meat. They're served in cast-iron skillets, in which they've been heated to blistering. One version offers wild boar in tender lumps that taste like good pork. The other has buffalo, with tougher, stringy meat and shreds on top, the mother lode of larger pieces hiding under the veggies and nuggets of smoky bacon. The vegetative components consist of fingerling carrots, tiny round potatoes, diced winter squash, pearl onions, and English gooseberries in their husks. These last look like golden cherry or grape tomatoes in papery coats, like those on fresh tomatillos. Their flavor is acidic and tomatolike as well. But take away the refinements (like the gooseberries and upscale carrots) and you'd have a standard hunter-style buffalo stew of the Prairie states -- the sort of recipe you find in older "I Shot It, You Cook It" game cookbooks. Alongside comes another "signature" dish, black-skillet cornbread, which is normal Southern-style cornbread, neither sweet nor fluffy but hearty.