Jose Pineda comes out of the kitchen with a smile on his face, and it is clear that he feels at home and in his element. This is no surprise—he has been working at Red Tracton’s for 20 years, since the day it opened. He started as a cook, coming to the restaurant when one of his mentors, Jose Hussen, came to work as head chef. Prior to Red Tracton’s, Pineda worked under Hussen for several years, first at Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe and then at Kirbys, the restaurant that used to occupy the building that is now Sbicca’s in Del Mar.
Pineda worked under several head chefs at Red Tracton’s, before stepping into the lead role himself. He has been Executive Chef for three years now. He explains that while it was hard in the beginning, the transition was easy overall, since he was so familiar with the restaurant. Of his ascension through the ranks, he simply says, "I started as a cook, then went from there."
He entered the kitchen at age 16, just a year after he moved to San Diego from El Salvador. As for his decision to enter the culinary world, his was a practical one. "It's one way to never go hungry," he says with a smile. He explains that he has always loved cooking, although he is hesitant to single out a favorite ingredient or dish. "I like everything," he claims.
As for whether he misses the food of El Salvador, he shakes his head. "I don't, because my wife cooks it at home." He enjoys her typical Spanish cuisine, but again can't pick a favorite.
Pineda will recommend almost anything on Red Tracton’s menu, explaining that "everything here is top quality." However, he does mention the Eastern Pork Back Ribs and the New York Steak as two exceptional items. And, of course, he stands behind the Prime Rib, Red Tracton's signature. Steaks and ribs are charbroiled, but the prime rib is cooked in a special oven. "It cooks slow," he says of the three-and-a-half hour cooking time, where the oven is held at 240 degrees. The prime rib is so popular that before busy days, Pineda often has to prepare several rib roasts a day in advance and hold them overnight.
Pineda takes busy days in stride, which is no small feat. On days like opening day at the racetrack, Red Tracton’s can see upwards of 400 diners in a single evening. But he feels that "it's the same, there's just more people." He adds: "we always do our best, racetrack or no racetrack."
Despite the proximity to the racetrack, Pineda personally doesn't take to the horse races. "I never go to the racetrack," he explains. "I like to keep my money in my pocket," he adds with a smile.
What he does enjoy is spending time at home with this family. He has been married for 27 years and tries to spend as much time as possible with his three kids. "I have to spend time with them while I can," he says, indicating that at age 25, 16, and 15, they will all be leaving the house soon. He cites the hardest part of his job as having to "stay away from the family," as there are days when he can be at the restaurant for 14-16 hours a day.
But despite a few long days, he is extremely happy, and his happiness shines through. He cites Tracy as the reason that he has stayed at Red Tracton’s for over 20 years. "I love working for her," he says, adding that it would be "hard to work in one place for 20 years unless you were happy."