I ate at Barbecue Inn on the recommendation of my next-door neighbor. It's not the kind of restaurant that would normally draw me in.
First off, the neon sign scares me. Barbecue, steaks and seafood. Call me a purist, but to my way of thinking seafood belongs in a barbecue restaurant about as much as a bacon cheeseburger does in a Chinese restaurant. Most serious barbecue places consider even a green salad an unnecessary distraction. And seafood? Please.
We were advised to go on a weeknight. On Friday and Saturday nights, the line often goes out the door and around the restaurant, and the staff even runs out of the little numbered cards it gives you so you know your place in line.
On a weeknight, though, we walked right into the restaurant -- a sea of orange vinyl booths, Formica tabletops and faux-wood paneling -- and were seated immediately. Along with the menu came a basket of saltines, Waverly crackers and melba toasts. The Muzak leached into my subconscious, and I began to relax. I'd been to this restaurant before! I thought. It may have been ten years ago, 20 years ago, maybe even 30 -- and it wasn't this one exactly. But I felt I'd been here before. And, as Hemingway would say, it was good.
We all have an old-fashioned family-run place like this buried in our memories somewhere. Barbecue Inn is owned by brothers Louis and Wayne Skrehot and was opened by their father in 1946. Either Louis or Wayne arrives at 8 a.m. each morning to start cooking the ribs and chicken; the brisket smokes overnight. It's the kind of place where the chefs have been around for 30 years, the waitresses for 20, and they've spent all that time forming opinions that they don't hesitate to voice.
On my first visit, I ordered the barbecue platter ($8.60), a combination of brisket, sliced pork and pork ribs. And though the meat was perhaps not the smokiest I've ever eaten, the brisket was as tender a slice of beef as I've ever had, and the pork was moist and succulent. But best of all were the ribs, sweet and crusty and falling-off-the-bone tender, with sauce that struck the perfect balance between sweet and hot. Those ribs are so good that, in fact, our waitress informed us that she ate them once a day for a full year.
My tablemate had the chicken-fried steak. The dinner included a salad (!), served on a cold, clear glass plate. Under the conditions, that salad performed extraordinarily well: The greens were crisp, the tomato chunks ripe and juicy, and the blue cheese dressing homemade. The chicken-fried steak was, as our waitress had boasted, tender enough to cut with a fork, and it possessed a shatteringly crisp crust and a good beefy taste. And its mound of crisp, fresh french fries proved worthy to share space on the plate. In fact, the whole meal made me want to stand up and salute the red, white and blue.
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I did notice, though, that about half the customers weren't eating barbecue or beef -- they were eating seafood. So on my next visit, I bit the bullet and ordered a platter of the stuff ($14.10 with fries and salad). I was rewarded with a huge assortment of fried shrimp, oysters, catfish and stuffed crab. The waitress bragged that the seafood is delivered fresh daily, and, by God, it tasted it. The breading is not particularly well spiced (Tabasco is provided on every table), but the combination of cornmeal and flour seals in all the juices and flavors of the perfectly fried seafood, reminding me of the kind I used to get at a good church supper, the kind the whole family can sit down and enjoy.
When I told the waitress how much I enjoyed it, she replied, "Isn't it great? The catfish doesn't have that dirty taste at all!" But after I raved about the oysters, she grimaced. "I don't eat those," she said. "I don't like the way they look."
Freedom of speech: It's one of those great American values.
Barbecue Inn, 116 West Crosstimbers, (713)695-8112.