If your summer road trip takes you along the swath of Texas Highway 144 that cuts through Bosque County, you’ll find a nice culinary surprise waiting for you in the tiny town of Walnut Springs: a farm-to-table restaurant.
Oma Leen’s, opened late last year by young couple Alston and Shannon Odom, may seem out of place in this matchbox of a community, whose population is less than 1,000. While developing their concept, it definitely crossed their minds, they say, to specialize in fare more closely associated with small town Texas: burgers, chicken-fried steak, tacos.
Yet they stuck to their guns, opening this farm-to-table concept in a century-old building in the heart of Walnut Springs’ dusty downtown. Their menu is a mix of American, Cajun, and Italian food, made with ingredients procured from local farms and farmers.
“We knew it would be tough at first, and believe me, it was,” Shannon says. “Some nights we had eight guests total, for the whole night. Others would walk out after seeing the price points. But we never wanted to do the type of food you might expect to see in Walnut Springs. We wanted to set ourselves apart and, more importantly, serve the kind of food that we love.”
Open only two nights a week, Fridays and Saturdays, the restaurant now has consistently full houses.
It’s a snug dining experience, with room for about 55 people. Diners sit among antiques and vintage photos in a historic space, originally home to a furniture store, that dates back to the turn of the 20th century. The two kept many of the building’s original architectural elements, including its 100-year-old-plus oak hardwood floors.
In culinary circles, Shannon and Alston are somewhat of an anomaly. Both 25, they’re young to be restaurant owners and chefs, and neither has any formal restaurant training.
You’d never know it from their menu. Dishes include trout almondine in a lemon beurre blanc; handmade pastas such as pappardelle; grilled yellow squash with salsa macha; and a Niman Ranch pork chop whose T. rex-size bone towers and twirls over its accompaniments: sage and jasmine rice, served in a pool of bone broth, and a microgreen salad from Hilltop Farm in Granbury.
For dessert, there’s hummingbird cake with pecans from Glen Rose and an exquisite chocolate tart whose artsy design and high-end star ingredient, Valrhona French dark chocolate, would make it a snug fit on any big-city, five-star restaurant menu.
As a way of engaging with their community, the couple will often invite the local and regional farmers who provide the restaurant’s food to speak to diners about the importance of the farm-to-table movement, Alston says.
“It’s a unique experience,” he says. “It gives the farmers a chance to talk about the care they put into their produce or game, and it gives diners an opportunity to learn about where their food is coming from.” Shannon and Alston also host pasta-making classes at Bull Lion Ranch & Vineyard in Granbury.
The two learned to cook the old-fashioned way — by watching others do it. Growing up in Garden City, a small west central Texas community not far from Midland, Alston came from a family of hunters, who not only taught him how to hunt but also how to butcher what he hunted. Similarly, Shannon, a native of Baton Rouge, learned the art of Southern cooking from her mother and grandmother.
The restaurant’s name, in fact, pays tribute to their families: Oma is the name of Alston’s great-grandmother, and Willene — “Leen” for short — is the name of Shannon’s grandmother.
While they were both students at Tarleton State University, the two came together, bonding over their love of food.
“I wouldn’t say we were great cooks back then, but a lot of our dates were centered around cooking or eating,” Shannon says. “Our relationship, as well as our cooking skills, developed over time. We’d skip class to go cook. It was bad for our GPAs, but in the end, it turned out to be a good thing.”
The two dropped out of Tarleton to start their own food-prep business, FreshPrep Foods. At one point, to appease his family, Alston took a day job working on the monolithic wind turbines in New Mexico, then came back to Texas every weekend to help Shannon fill the meal-prep orders.
The meal-prep business gave the two a taste of the restaurant business, and soon, they were hosting pop-up events in and around Glen Rose, where the couple lives, and Walnut Springs, a 10-minute drive from their house. Responses to the pop-ups were overwhelmingly favorable, Shannon says, leading them down the open-our-own-restaurant road.
“One of the things that we share is a love for food,” Shannon says. “When we travel, it’s for food — to try a new restaurant or a place that we’ve been wanting to go. We pay attention to everything — the service, the food, the presentation of the food. We study those things in the same way a student would study something at school. It took some time, but that’s how we learned the business.”