It’s a Thursday evening, and folks are streaming into Traxler’s Hunting Preserve in Le Center for one of its twice-monthly “Wild Game Nights.” The preserve’s Clubhouse is filled almost to capacity as people arrive from miles around, coming from Rochester, Mankato, Faribault, the Twin Cities and beyond.
The evening’s menu is simple—just three options. There’s the hunting preserve’s famous prime rib, always a best seller. There’s bourbon chicken over rice. But what really draws people is the “preserve platter,” which features three different types of meat and is never the same twice. Tonight, the offerings are osso bucco (specialty cross-cut veal shanks), stuffed quail and mako shark with pineapple crème sauce.
That’s right—mako shark. And that isn’t the wildest thing that has been served during these wild game dinners.
“Everybody likes to go to places and try something different,” said Jeff Traxler, who has run the preserve for 31 years. “We definitely are different.”
Traxler opened his preserve in 1987, borrowing $5,000 from his grandmother so he could start his business in his father’s shed. A few years later, he was able to purchase 20 acres of land from his dad, and that eventually grew to 800 acres of rolling hills, woods, lakes, sloughs, fields and natural grassland. People come from all over the state to hunt ducks, pheasants and chukars.
Traxler said early on, he’d sometimes sell pizzas and beer to hunters, then expanded the menu to include little things like chicken sandwiches and French fries. People could always come to the Clubhouse for lunch and grab a quick bite. But in 1988, he hired Roger Hess, who had experience as a chef. The two of them decided to try some evening dining once in a while.
They began offering wild game dinners every other Thursday. At first, it was slow. Traxler said they had to serve 30-40 people to break even, and they didn’t always manage that. But, as more people learned about the events, the crowds grew.
“As it got going and word got out about it, started to turn into a pretty unique thing,” he said.
Eventually, Hess moved on, and Traxler began working with some women from the Le Center area who had experience cooking at area nursing homes and the American Legion. But the group didn’t just serve the stereotypical brats and potatoes associated with Legion food. Instead, they began branching out in rather exotic directions.
“We’re pretty unique and pretty laid back,” Traxler said. “We have a lot of fun trying to create things that you don’t get to eat anywhere else. We’re not your typical wild game dinner.”
That much is certain from just hearing Traxler’s partial list of previous dinners: kangaroo, wild goats, wild sheep, moose, caribou, bear, elk, buffalo, shark, alligator, stingray and even African lion.
Traxler said it’s surprisingly easy to obtain these exotic meats from different meat and seafood suppliers. Ranches in Texas supply quail, black buck and antelope, while a seafood company in Hawaii sent over live sharks for his crew to butcher and prepare. The lion came from a mission group that had received a donation from Traxler’s preserve. Of course, the preserve supplies the ducks, pheasants and partridges.
Besides the wild game offerings, the restaurant also serves desserts that always made from scratch. In fact, everything from the dressings to the sauces to the soup is made from scratch.
Traxler said the wild game nights have live music about 90 percent of the time, adding that he tries to find as many local musicians as possible. The sound is usually bluegrass or other laid-back background music, though one night they featured country music singer John Michael Montgomery. Traxler explained that the singer had come to the preserve to hunt, so they asked him if he’d be willing to sing and he obliged.
“Afterwards, when people heard about it the next few days, they asked, ‘How come we didn’t know about it?’” Traxler said. “And I told them, ‘You weren’t there.’ You never know what’s going to happen.”
The restaurant hosts these game night dinners from September to the end of March. (Traxler explained they’re closed during the summer since most people are out on the lake.) Each event’s menu is posted on the preserve’s website a few weeks in advance, so people can know what to look forward to. It’s a good thing, too, since people often need to make reservations early if they want a spot. Traxler said last year, the dinners were booked two weeks in advance the whole year. This year, it isn’t quite as busy, but most nights are still pretty busy, with 100-120 people coming on most nights.
“This thing has grown into a pretty exceptional dining destination for a lot of people,” Traxler said. “The more people who come to it, the more they keep coming back.”
IF YOU GO
What: Wild game nights at Traxler’s Hunting Preserve
Where: 37699 Hunting Preserve Ln in Le Center
When: Every other Thursday from September to March
By Grace Brandt