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Plains Speaking

[whitespace] Red Tractor Cafe
Christopher Gardner

Red Tractor Cafe brings Midwestern farmhouse food to the land of trendy fusion cuisine

By Andrew X. Pham

IN A REGION WHERE a restaurant's worth is measured by its novelty, food from America's heartland has the allure of a new fad. Its familiarity is almost exotic. The Red Tractor Cafe's no-nonsense country cooking won't be found elsewhere in Silicon Valley; you can drive the asphalt hinterlands till the cows come home. A theme cafe in the vein of Johnny Rockets, Red Tractor pulls through with its honest prices, authentic recipes and low-cal cooking.

Amplified over the outdoor speakers, clucks, moos and other sounds of barnyard discord greet hungry homesteaders. But the mint-condition red tractor sitting atop a picket-fenced patch of grass reminds patrons that the only real dirt within miles is the grime on their children's hands, and the only animals will be on plates.

A small, bustling counter-service diner, Red Tractor resembles a renovated barn, about as long and wide as six horse stalls, with a farmer's wife's sensible touches. Accents of lumberyard scrap add rustic charm to the walls, complementing the exposed-board ceiling. Cowbells string the counters. Silver milk buckets hold set-it-yourself tableware. Canned preserves line false pantry windows. Atop a checkered floor, the high pinewood tables--blonde as a Midwestern farmer's daughter--look out over the shopping mall farmland.

Red Tractor is a down-home family affair. Walls papered with crayon coloring-book drawings of tractors--red, pink, polka-dotted, rainbow-colored--make the cafe feel like a kindergarten romper room. With kids' plates priced at $2.95, it's no wonder the place is zipping with McDonald's-weary parents and their offspring. Children's meals offer a choice of mini macaroni and cheese, meat loaf, chicken breast or foot-long all-beef hot dog. Dishes are served with one side dish, a drink and ice cream. Adults undoubtedly will whoop it up as well when they catch the prices on the Farmer's Platters & Sides ($6.25-$7.35), which include two side dishes and a cheddar buttermilk biscuit.

On a recent visit, we opted for three plates: herb-roasted chicken breast ($6.55), meat loaf ($6.55; a no-meat loaf is available for $6.25) and a thick-cut pork chop ($7.35). We fetched our feed at the counter after the servers hog-hollered our names, and then nosed into our boneless, skinless chicken breast rubbed in a seasoned marinade. In keeping with American tradition, the poultry is slightly overcooked but retains its natural juices and flavor. The accompanying mushroom salad has a definite Italian influence. Washed in a tangy dressing, this American antipasto harbors mushrooms, black beans, roasted and marinated bell peppers, scallions and sweet onions. A side of cold, roasted vegetables--carrots, zucchini, summer squash, onion and bell pepper--tasted picnic-perfect. Even Aunt Erma would agree the biscuits are baked up right: yeasty, slightly doughy, crisp on the outside and rib-sticking in the middle.

The meat loaf, more loaf than meat, yielded a bready slab of burger almost 1 inch thick. What the slice lacked in meaty flavor was made up for by a savory pan gravy with a tomato edge. To the side lay a sweet potato pudding so pulpy and comfortable that it could become a habit. Garlic mashed potatoes flecked with pepper completed the supper.

What Great Plains menu would be complete without pork chops and applesauce? Red Tractor doesn't disappoint with its rendition. Granny Smith would be proud of the chunky, tart fruit distillation, and displaced Nebraskans will be appeased by the chop, albeit a tad overcooked and small. Other dishes that shouldn't be missed are the giant salads ($1.95-$6.45), generous sandwiches served on country loafs ($4.75-$5.45) and old-fashioned breakfasts ($2.25-$6.25).

There are plenty of ways to caffeinate and sugar-bomb the kids, as drinks are refillable and desserts are cheap. The Bake Sale portion of the menu includes butterscotch bread pudding ($2.95), a farmhouse cookie ($1.25) and, yes, even a Rice Krispies Treat ($1.95) made from directions right off the box. For those who fancy coffee with their sweets, Red Tractor pours the best kind of mug: bottomless ($1.30).

Red Tractor offers a healthful variety of flyover-states cuisine that leaves the pressure off your suspenders and the grease off your spoon. And if you like it, you can call up Andrew Stoloff, the proprietor, on a direct-link phone and tell him so. No doubt he'd take the time to tell you and yours, "Much obliged."


Red Tractor Cafe

Cuisine: Midwestern farm
Ambiance: Gimmicky but comfortable
Menu: Side dishes 75 cents to $1.55; full dinners $3.95-$7.35; children's meals $2.95
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11am-9pm, Fri. 11am-9:30pm, Sat. 9am-9:30pm, Sun. 9am-9pm
Address: 1320 El Paseo de Saratoga (Campbell Avenue at Saratoga Avenue), San Jose
Phone: 408/374-2222
Extras: Great place for families with young children


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From the January 7-13, 1999 issue of Metro.

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