A tip from a colleague led me to Wild Rooster Bistro in old Fair Oaks, a café devoted to homey Mexican favorites, with some California twists. I don’t get out to that quaint and legendarily chicken-filled part of the region all that much, and I had overlooked the small restaurant across from the quiet park in the middle of town. Online commenters haven’t, though: Wild Rooster, open since 2017, has a devoted fan base.
Restaurant reviewers have an uneasy relationship with review websites. We could try to pretend they don’t exist, but we all live in the modern world. I try not to read other reviews before I try a place but, full disclosure, those community-based star ratings from a range of rating sites show up on search-result previews, and it can be helpful to know when I might have overlooked a place area diners are loving.
All that is a long way of saying that I headed out to Fair Oaks to see and taste for myself. The restaurant was unassuming and friendly, with a family-run feel and an eager-to-please air. It’s especially eager to please its guests with special dining needs and plant-based preferences: there’s a full menu of vegan dishes, rice and beans are vegan (unusual for a Mexican place). Vegetarian options abound on the regular menu. They also emphasize freshness and skew healthier than most Cal-Mex places, with bright side salads and a restrained approach to cheese and other rich toppings like sour cream.
Wild Rooster’s lunch and dinner menus are the same, all reasonably priced and full of the items you’d expect: tacos, enchiladas, chile rellenos (which are baked, rather than fried) and shrimp and pork plates, plus salads and a few outlier sandwiches and pastas.
The restaurant offers beer and wine, but the options aren’t particularly inspiring. I preferred the fruity but not-too-sweet sangria, served in big tumblers and packing a modest punch. At lunch, iced tea is good and strong.
I started off with the Yucatecan dish cochinita pibil, chunks of slow-cooked tender pork in a rich, aromatic sauce of achiote and the traditional bittersweet citrus tang of orange. (This dish, like all on the menu, is also available vegetarian, with tofu or other soy products standing in for meat.) The achiote makes the thick, flavorful sauce orange in color as well as flavor. The cochinita pibil came in a small bowl, which contained the copious sauce, but I wished for a spoon to scoop it up. Simple corn tortillas, however, did the job. Beans and rice alongside were a little bland, with the beans undersalted. I preferred the side salad with a snappy tart-sweet vinaigrette, crisp lettuce and crunchy red pepper on top.
Another saucy dish that needed a spoon was also good, though very different: camarones al ajo, shrimp in a creamy garlic sauce, recommended by the server as one of the most popular dishes. It was ultra-rich, the aromatic cream balanced by the sweet snap of shrimp. Both were just a little oversauced, but the sauces tasted great.
The biggest miss at Wild Rooster, however, also featured shrimp and too much sauce. My dining companion ordered one shrimp and one fish taco. Here, the kitchen abandoned its usual fresh, bright approach, drowning the seafood in a bland mayonnaise-based sauce that was blended with hot sauce, but somehow managed to be flavorless. Not a fleck of green adorned the plate, and both the fish and the shrimp were watery and tasted a little undercooked. That’s better than tough, but not by much.
Much better were the carnitas tacos, with tender and meaty pork topped with colorful salsa. For an appetizer, my friends and I split a plate of hefty, thick sopes (little round masa “boats”) with tender shredded chicken, lots of lettuce and salsa, and a smear of beans – better salted and more flavorful on this occasion.
I asked our server what he’d recommend from the vegan menu, and he unhesitatingly suggested the chile relleno. It was, indeed, very good, with a ton of rounded, roasty green chile flavor from the deep emerald poblano, and a lighter, savory ranchero-style tomato sauce surrounding it. I love a properly fried, gooey-cheesy relleno, but I didn’t miss the frying or the dairy here, with soy shreds adding filling protein and tons of flavor on the plate.
The wealth of vegan options is a boon for diners, and worth exploring for omnivores as well. I was surprised and delighted by one vegan dessert, an unusual firm walnut pudding with a praline-like flavor. It was not much of a looker – being more or less a thick grayish-brown mass in a bowl – but it had a complex, haunting nutty flavor and sweetness.
Wild Rooster’s other dessert, flan, was the traditional dairy-based article. Very thick and creamy, it was also very firm, but not bouncy. Just be aware that if you like an ethereal, meltingly tender flan, this isn’t that style. Like the other dishes at Wild Rooster, there’s a homespun, even humble character about it.
Unlike the online reviewers, I wasn’t wholly taken with Wild Rooster. Some seemingly basic items were flawed, and service, though friendly, could also be a little slow. But I liked the homey, simple feeling the place exuded and the emphasis on plant-based options, which can be a little hard to find in far-flung suburban dining. You might, too, if find yourself among the wild roosters of Fair Oaks.
Where: 7984 California Ave., Fair Oaks
Info: 916-966-6384. wildroosterbistro.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday
Beverage options: Beer and wine, plus sangria and soft drinks.
Vegetarian options: An excellent variety of plant-based meals, including vegan options, is one of the restaurant’s strengths.
Noise levels: Modest.
Ambiance: Casual and easygoing, with an open kitchen, lots of natural light from big windows that look out at Fair Oaks’ namesake chickens, and colorful art on the walls.
This quiet café in the heart of old Fair Oaks attracts loyal regulars for its California-Mexican menu (though the restaurant name gives no hint of that slant), welcoming proprietors, and emphasis on freshness and flexibility, though not all the dishes are hits.
Home-style Mexican food, with an unusual number of vegetarian options; hits include a baked chile relleno and saucy cochinita pibil. Some items, such as the fish tacos and undersalted refried beans, can be surprisingly shy on flavor.
Personable and personal, with no strong distinction between front and back of house at this mom-and-pop-style spot. Can be a little slow.
Entrees are priced around $10 to $17 for generous portions, making the value here solid.