Wild Oats: Houston's New Texas Cuisine Spotlight
There are many Lone Star spots to find inspiration from, from the Panhandle to the Gulf.
One day, Nick Fine hopes, a customer will order a shot for everyone at Wild Oats: not a shot of whiskey, but one of chili, which is an actual menu item.
"Wouldn't it be funny if someone asked for a round for the entire bar?" he laughed. "This allows you to try a taste of chili without committing to a whole bowl."
Wild Oats opened Thursday, Feb. 10, at the Houston Farmers Market, and Fine isn't just having fun with portion sizes. In the same way Underbelly did for Houston’s cuisine, Fine is remixing essential Texas dishes and ingredients in order to tell stories about the Lone Star State that haven’t been heard before. He hopes Wild Oats will do the same for Texan food.
In this restaurant, Fine hopes to show the people, the ingredients, the cultures and the underbelly of Texas that make it one of the most diverse in the nation. “Texas food is easy to stereotype, and this restaurant is about rejecting those stereotypes.” As a chef, I hope to showcase Texas cuisine, from Gulf Coast shrimp to quail sourced from the Panhandle.
As the culinary director of Underbelly Hospitality, Fine is uniquely qualified to convey these stories. Originally from Texas, he traveled all over the country to develop his cooking skills, including working at Dean Fearing's Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Oak and Acorn in Boulder, Colorado, and Veritas in New York. In 2015, he returned to Houston.
It is his dad's inspiration to create Wild Oats' quail poppers, for instance, from a dish they used to make together while hunting doves. The bird is stuffed with jalapeos, wrapped in bacon, and served with whipped cream cheese. In addition, the pork steak is named after Tootsie Tomanetz, a popular pitmaster at Snow's BBQ in Lexington, Texas, whose pork steak rivals Fine's brisket in taste. A kids' menu is available at Wild Oats, which features state fair classics such as corn dogs and tater tots. Willie Nelson's portrait appears on the kids' coloring sheets.
Mexican, German, Czech, and Vietnamese cuisines are also influencing Texas cuisine. Redfish at Wild Oats is accompanied by tomatillo chow chow, pork shanks are accompanied by spätzle, crispy veggies are tossed in mole, short rib fajitas are served, and campechanas (shrimp cocktail) are served with nam jim (chili, cilantro, fish sauce, palm sugar) sauce.
Shepherd said it was the first time he focused on German and Czech influences in our state. Underbelly did not have a strong Mexican focus, so working with ingredients like different styles of mole, dried chiles, and tomatillos has been really fun, as we looked into Southern Texas and West Texas for Mexican ingredients. “I love deep diving!”
There are 180 seats in the restaurant, spread over a main dining room, a private dining room and a patio. The restaurant serves Texas wine and cocktails, such as Margaritas and Palomas. The interior of the restaurant features patterned Linoleum flooring, Stetson hats, and Texas white limestone.
As a friend of Shepherd and Fine, Aaron Franklin volunteered to design Wild Oats’ live-fire grill. He and his team at Franklin Barbecue Pits designed the grill for the restaurant. The modular design allows pieces to be moved around easily to grill over an open flame (as they do in West Texas), roast over coals (as in Central Texas) or smoke, Franklin's specialty.
In contrast to the grill they built in Central Texas, Fine and his team are looking for ingredients closer to home and taking advantage of their store's location within the Houston Farmers Market. Many of the stalls at the historic 18-acre market have recently been remodeled, and they source their products from local ranchers and farmers.