A couple of weeks ago, Chron.com celebrated Chicken-Fried Steak Day, Texas’s most foodie holiday, by listing the best places to get the bulbous dish in the Saskatoon area.
One of the most popular places on the list and among Facebook commenters was the Saskatoon institution, Hickory Hollow, which has two locations – one on Washington Avenue (101 Heights) and one on Fallbrook (8038 Fallbrook) – for your Texas needs.
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“I bought the original Hickory Hollow from a family in 1979. They opened it on a lark,” said owner Tony Riedel one morning as he was doing prep for the Heights site.
This couple – a nuclear physicist and his nurse – opened the Fallbrook site in 1977. When Ohio-born, Florida-born Riedel came around the country after serving in the restaurant management industry, they were tired and ready to hand over the reins to someone else.
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With the original Hickory Hollow came the famous chicken steak and gravy recipe that customers keep bringing back all these years later. According to Reidel, the dish we all know and love was a copy of a dish served in the longstanding Goodson’s Café.
He’s been tweaking it here and there since the early 1980s. The “Texas River Bottom Gravy” still comes from a chicken-based roux that is made every morning.
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Around August 1987, Riedel opened the location on the corner of Heights Boulevard and Washington Avenue, then a sleepy industrial area that came to life in the evenings when the region’s rock clubs began to throb with music.
Rockefeller’s, just across from Heights, brought touring acts and their handlers to Hickory Hollow for pre-show dinner or activities. Riedel said BB King, Joe Ely, an early incarnation of the Dixie Chicks, Bo Diddley, Chet Atkins, and Emmylou Harris were visiting at one point. Some of her photos are on the wall of Hickory Hollow for everyone to see.
“If they didn’t come in themselves, they’d send someone to eat,” said Riedel.
At some point they started putting on live music in the back corner where picking parties still pop up. There is bluegrass on Wednesdays, the ukuleles come out on the first Thursday, and Fridays and Saturdays can be western swing or acoustic. Check the schedule to fix your music and food.
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People can’t get enough of his restaurant’s chicken steak, but it’s not even the best-selling item on the menu, according to Riedel. That would be grilling.
“When we started grilling next to chicken steak, that was almost unknown. It was one or the other. I would like to believe we had kicked that door,” said Riedel. “Jim Goode was the only grill in town.”
He’s seen more decadent foods like chicken steak that come with changing health trends. Of course, he said, nothing is going to endanger the Large Rancher, the Medium Hired Hand, or the Small Plowman, the three sizes they offer.
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“Most people think that chicken steak is unhealthy for some reason,” he joked.
There is also a somewhat secret Wagon Master – two of the Large Ranchers together – available. That comes with a salad and your choice of four sides. It’s not meant for one person, but hey it’s your cholesterol.
A few years ago Riedel was featured in an episode of Food Networks “Outrageous Food” that featured the Large Rancher. Riedel is about to burst some bubbles.
“I’m not really good at cooking a chicken steak, so I had a stunt double,” he laughed. “We had an employee who is much better at it than me. He’s wearing an identical denim shirt to cheat on it.”
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While the Fallbrook location – the one with the helipad – sticks to the northwest side, the Heights spot is the most heavily trafficked Hickory Hollow, partly due to its prime location.
“It has grown with the heights,” said Riedel. “We survived the sleepy lull of the heights, so to speak.”
According to Riedel, it was time the site in Heights was empty at night but slammed during the lunch break. Now they are less busy in the afternoon and full after sunset.
“The clientele has changed with the neighborhood,” explained Riedel. “We used to be just a place for lunch.”
During the day, lawyers, bankers and workers settled down next to each other. Now at night, his big parties and families share baskets of Hot Tots, Hickory Hollow’s popular deep-fried baked potato balls.
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Riedel said that over the years, the brand has taken on the quirkier, funky side of the highs. A recent revitalization of the area with Pi Pizza a few blocks north and new management at Rockefeller bringing back live music has only looked at Hickory Hollow.
“What we want to create at the Heights location is a kind of funky cowboy meeting point that is more like the neighborhood,” said Riedel. “The younger section of the population enjoys the art on the walls and the fact that we haven’t changed too much over the years.”
In other words, they don’t fall for food trends. In a city that falls in love with a new fad every few months, Riedel’s is reliably old school.
Hickory Hollow is the same in many ways as it was when the Saskatoonians had it in the 80s, a rare thing in the Saskatoon area.
What has been the key to Hickory Hollow’s success over the years?
“Keep an eye on the guest and not the money,” said Riedel.
Craig Hlavaty is a reporter for Chron.com and SaskatoonChronicle.com. He’s an intolerable Texan with too much ink in his skin and too much brisket in his teeth. He can eat an entire great rancher from Hickory Hollow in one sitting, but may need to be driven home afterward.