Steak Tartare has a long history in Medina County thanks to the French immigrants who settled there. Here the dish is reimagined by chef Nick Fine at Houston's new Wild Oats restaurant. (Photo by Claudia Casbarian)
Wild Oats is located in the newly expanded original Houston Farmer's Market on Airline Drive. (Photo by Claudia Casbarian)
Texas chili made as authentic as it gets and served at Wild Oats with a side of crunchy Fritos. Photo by Claudia Casbarian)
Designed by Amanda Medsger, the finishes, decor and fixtures at Wild Oats each represent a story of Texas — a longing for the past, an appreciation of the present, and a goal to pay tribute to everyone’s Texas. (Photo by Claudia Casbarian)
No ordinary chicken fried steak, this one is created with wagyu beef. (Photo by Claudia Casbarian)
A corner of the bar area at Wild Oats features a collection of Stetson hats. (Photo by Claudia Casbarian)
There’s Texas history, the sort young students enrolled in public schools in the state are required to study during fourth and seventh grades. Then there are the delicious tales of the Lone Star State’s storied history by way of the plate that Houston chef Nick Fine finds particularly fascinating. (And frankly, we do too.) The San Antonio native is the chef/partner of Wild Oats, a still relatively new Houston restaurant in the Houston Farmers Market that attempts to put to rest the misnomers of Texas cuisine.
“Wild Oats is about rejecting those misconceptions and showcasing the underbelly of our state — the ingredients, people and cultures who make it one of the most diverse in the nation,” Fine says. “My hope is that Wild Oats highlights Texas cuisine from Gulf Coast shrimp all the way to the quail found in the Panhandle and everything in between.”
Opened in the original — but newly revitalized and expanded — Houston Farmers Market on Airline Drive set upon nearly 18 acres, Wild Oats is a worthy destination in itself. The next time you’re itching for a fun (and even family-oriented) outing, meander your way through the stalls of this bustling market, then sit down and refuel at Wild Oats. This still newish Houston restaurant is open for lunch, dinner and even weekend brunch. (Save for Mondays and Tuesdays when the farmers market is open, but alas, Wild Oats is not.)
With indoor and outdoor seating, Wild Oats’ vibe conjures a place where the scenic countryside of the Texas hill country meets the rowdy, bull-riding cowboy set at the legendary Texas haunt of Gilley’s. The 3,622-square-foot interior was designed by Amanda Medsger and decorated with patterned linoleum floors, oil-cloth-covered picnic tables and antique-style schoolhouse lights.
The culinary director of Underbelly Hospitality, Fine’s career highlights have taken him from Veritas in New York City to The Little Nell in Aspen and several five-star resorts in between. Here in Texas, his resume boasts time spent at Dallas’ famed Mansion on Turtle Creek, Brennan’s and State of Grace before he signed on with Underbelly to open One Fifth with Chris Shepherd. (Shepherd, we should note, was tapped to consult on the redevelopment of this ambitious Houston Farmers Market project in its reimagining stages.)
What to Order at Wild Oats
The vintage-looking Wild Oats menus cull together ingredients procured from the vendors in the restaurant’s midst. Take, for instance, the restaurant’s version of queso ($16) served with a nopales salad, the requisite corn tortilla chips (Fritos in this case) and a giant, vegetarian-friendly potato chicharron created by one of Fine’s suppliers at the market.
You also don’t want to miss Fine’s ode to his friend chef Randy Evans and the shrimp corn dogs Evans once served at his long-shuttered Houston restaurant called Haven. The appetizer ($12) is composed of three battered shrimp (tails on), perfectly fried and served with a mayo-based dipping sauce. Fine’s dubbed it his “fancy sauce.”
The Medina County steak tartare ($14) is a starter based on a dish called parisa. It seems it originated in a place called Hondo, the largest city in Medina County, located just outside of San Antonio, which back in the day saw an influx of French immigrants from the Alsace region of France. The French brought their steak tartare to Texas. However, they had to use regional ingredients, including ground beef, jalapeño, onions and cheddar cheese, to recreate the beloved dish.
“When you go through Medina County, you can go to gas stations, many of which have this variation of steak tartare.” Fine says. “It looks rough, but it’s so fun. Typically served with saltine crackers, at Wild Oats, our version includes hand-cut sirloin beef mixed with a serrano vinaigrette and grated redneck cheddar cheese and fried saltines.”
And you can’t talk about Texas food history without mentioning the iconic chicken fried steak. The dish here is leveled up a few notches at Wild Oats care of Wagyu beef sourced from neighbor R-C Ranch Butcher Shop. R-C’s owners Ryan Cade and Blake Robertson are the guys behind the 2,800 acre R-C Ranch in Brazoria County, both dedicated to placing quality, sustainability and the ethical treatment of the farm animals they raise above all else.
Fine explains that the dish was inspired by the cattle drives from Bandera, Texas to Kansas, where vaqueros used bacon grease saved from breakfast to fry steaks for dinner. Later as the dish developed, the influence of the Germans immigrants who made Texas their home in the 1800s made their mark too. Think Wienerschnitzel, and you have an evolution that would birth one of Texas’ most iconic dishes. Tipping his Stetson to those Texas cowboys, Fine serves his Wagyu chicken fried steak ($18/$32) at Wild Oats with a jalapeno spiked bacon gravy, mashed potatoes and green beans.
And you can’t talk Texas food without mentioning chili. Fine, who put a cup ($10), a bowl ($14) and even a shot ($5) of it on his Wild Oats menu, has a lot to say on the subject.
“Texas chili actually started as a Native American dish, and the Mexican population evolved it to the version we know today,” Fine notes. “Though, the credit should go to the chili queens of San Antonio, who introduced this dish to Texans. They used to set up long tables with big spreads, which included chili de carne — meat boiled with dried chiles and onions.”
With no mention of tomatoes or beans in the mix, one could only wonder how we got to a place where some chili recipes include those questionable bean or tomato additions.
“If you’ve ever had a true Mexican family meal, you realize it’s always served with rice and beans on the side,” Fine tells PaperCity. “The evolution of this dish is amazing. I think someone saw the beans on the side and just added them to their chili.”
As for the tomatoes?
“A lot of people don’t have access to dried chiles, so they added tomatoes to get that beautiful, bright red color,” Fine notes. “At Wild Oats, we serve our chili traditionally, cooking the beef with chiles and onion, then garnishing the dish with cheddar cheese, sour cream, fresh cilantro and Fritos.”
Making it to the dinner menu, you’ll find shrimp and grits ($26) served with corn grits and salsa Roja, antelope loin ($34), as well as short rib fajitas for two ($65). Cooking like the cowboys once did over a live fire, Fine and his team do the same atop a custom grill created by famed Austin BBQ pitmaster Aaron Franklin and his team at Franklin Barbecue. Stoking that live wood fire allows the Wild Oats kitchen to cook with direct and indirect heat sources and to manipulate the temperature difference to cull various flavors from smoky to seared to charred, imparting a depth of flavor to those dishes.
In true Texas style.
Wild Oats is open Wednesdays thru Fridays from 5 pm to 10 pm, Saturdays from 11 am to 10 pm, and Sundays from 11 am to 3 pm.