Interview: bartender Johnny Rivera (The Tractor Room + Hash House A Go Go)

Bartender San Diego

Photo of Andy Beardslee and Johnny Rivera courtesy of Hash House A Go Go

Johnny Rivera and Chef Andy Beardslee built a dedicated following with Hash House A Go Go, their Hillcrest comfort food emporium with Flintstones-sized portions, before opening The Tractor Room down the street in 2006, specializing in “honest cocktails and meats.” House A Go Go now has three locations in Las Vegas and one in Reno. In May, we met Rivera in Hollywood, where the San Diego native competed in a cocktail competition featuring Domaine de Canton. Afterwards, we spoke over the phone, where Rivera better explained his background and “twisted” approach.

Were you always twisted?

Maybe my mother would say so. I wouldn’t say so. I’m an ex musician, so it just kind of worked out that way.

Which instrument?


Do you have a first cocktail memory, good or bad?

I would have to say Johnnie Walker Red and water. I thought I was being clever drinking that, and it become clear I wasn’t too clever when I was throwing up. That’s not really a cocktail, but it was Johnnie Walker on the rocks with a splash of water.

Having grown up with James Bond, I always thought the shaken not stirred martini was pretty cool, when I was able to order that fopr the first time at 21. That was a great memory. It was a place in Los angeles where I had that cocktail. It was the Whisky A Go Go or Roxy.

Did you become interested in spirits or cocktails first?

I was always a huge fan as a child of food and the restaurant business in general. I particularly liked vintage branding from Bob’s Big Boy, Sambo’s and Anderson’s Pea Soup. I was always studying the food and what they were trying to concoct at the bar. I was always interested in the socialization of the meal…the time and the energy that’s put into pleasurable consumption.

My father’s a printer, we didn’t have much money at all, occasionally we’d go out to dinner and it would always be a big deal…Being in the music biz, I was always in bars in one way or another…It was always a dream to have my own places where I could express myself…when the planets aligned, I wasn’t going to the slam dunk cocktail culture, I was going back to the socialization, the bartender – not the mixologist – was an intrical part of the experience…It’s not a new idea, it’s going back in the past. I got on to this wave by accident.

What was your first bar-related job?

I worked at the first wine bar in San Diego, a place called La Taza, that was in 1992. Pretty much went from there – I think I was there for five years. It was kind of cool, it wasn’t just a wine bar, it had food and a cheese board. It was very Italianesque. I actually opened a yogurt business in 1986, I was 17 years old. I worked three jobs to get enough money to get that going.

How did the Hash House A Go Go opportunity come about?

I used to work with my partner – he was exec chef and I was the GM. I left and we went went out drinking. After six martinis, we made an oath we would open something together. Three years later, I was working in the wine business, we had a phone call to make that happen. I was considering in San Francisco or New York. I found this space in fall of ’98. It was a Thai restaurant…We called [the owner], didn’t go through a broker. It was a lot of calls, we were $100,000 over budget. We sold our cars, maxed our credit cards. My girlfriend at the time – now my wife – we had this little studio because we couldn’t afford anywhere else. July 2000 we opened it with 12 employees and had 36 within three months. After six months we were in the New York Times. When we opened in 2000, San Diego hadn’t seen what we were doing.

What are the criteria for a drink that goes on The Tractor Room menu?

It first needs to be spirited as far as interesting to what I want to do with it. The general criteria is to have a burn. I don’t mean it in a negative way – too much alcohol – everything’s fresh and balanced, with viscosity from basil or fruit. Alcohol has an overreaching impact, and there’s always something there to tweak it sweet or sour. The way I express it to my bartenders in how I want my bar to be, in presentation, prep and how they make cocktails, is the last night on earth. The Tuesday night shift is equal to a Friday night sihift.

Do you have any mentors in terms of cocktails?

I do appreciate what Colin Field has done over at Rick’s Paris. His simplicity and his ability in the Hemingway Bar to keep it real with the socialization. Part of the issue of the modern cocktail business is that the mixologist is taking themselves too seriously. The conversation and the product should star. The handlebar mustache shouldn’t.

What was the last cocktail you developed, and what was your approach?

The Crown of Thorns. It’s fresh ginger, cherry, Canton, Maker’s 46 is in there, then I’ve got the float of Thomas Handy, the fire and the fresh spank of rosemary. I like the dramatic sense of that cocktail. It doesn’t fit any mold. It has strength, it’s got complexity, it’s got girth. You get bang for your buck with it…I really enjoy brown liquor. It’s an original American product, not something that’s been influenced by Europe. It’s an original American product. In San Diego, I was the first to use the surge of brown…Even with the Crown of Thorns, it can be done in a finesse way and can be part of the night instead of pure debauchery….It’s kind of like Rhone wine 15 years ago. It’s pretty amazing how well people understand brown liquor. There’s a whole lot of art with this, and we’re stoked we can be part of it in San Diego, open people’s minds a little bit.

What’s a great simple cocktail for people to make at home, and what’s the recipe?

One of the best, and I have it on menu, is the Spring Fling. Lime wedges muddled with mint and if you have simple syrup, use it, or a fine sugar. Two ounces of Hendrick’s Gin. Shake it and strain that over the ice, or you can literally make that in the glass. It’s a great aperitif or summer cocktail. Wedge of cucumber just to freshen it up. Those kinds of simple things are easy not to screw up.

Where do you like to drink and what do you like to drink when you’re not at work?

If I’m not going to drink hard liquor, my favorite wine region is Rhone and my favorite wine is Chateau du Pape. I enjoy my Ports. I feel like I’m in a socialized vacuum so much, so pretty much on my porch with Chateau du Pape.

If you could only fill your glass with one more cocktail, what would be in the glass and why?

My last cocktail, what would be in it? I hate to be oversimplified, but I would love to go out with just a Manhattan.

Who would make it, and it can’t be you?

[The Tractor Room bartender] ]Brett Morse. He won best bartender of the year, 2008 [in Tasting Panel Magazine]. He can rival anybody in America as far as the cocktail stuff.

Any favorite outdoor activities?

I wish I could be quicker on the draw on that, but unfortunately, I’m such a restaurateur, I’m either working or sleeping. I love to go out on the water. If I get a kayak or a boat, I enjoy it. I do enjoy the old school sport of racquetball. Riding a bike too.

Address: 3687 Fifth Avenue, San Diego, CA 92103

Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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