Fried in the Heights
The St. Louis-cut pork ribs are coated with coarse black pepper and swathed in the aroma of smoke. The meat doesn't fall off the bone -- instead, it's a little bit firm and pleasantly chewy. This is the first time in my many recent visits to Barbecue Inn that I've actually eaten any barbecue. The 50-something-year-old restaurant is so famous for its fried foods, it's hard to order anything else here.
Actually, the rib was acquired in a trade. I got the awesome Southern-fried chicken plate and swapped a drumstick for a rib with one dining companion, and a thigh for some fried seafood off my other companion's overflowing seafood platter. The chicken here is amazing. The crust doesn't flake away -- it sticks to the bird like it was glued. And the tender white meat of the breast is so juicy, it literally drips.
The seafood platter includes lots of gooey little fried oysters, a huge mound of battered and fried crabmeat served on a fake aluminum crab shell, a big piece of fried catfish and several of Barbecue Inn's incredible fried shrimp. In our Best of Houston issue, we gave Barbecue Inn Best Chicken-Fried Steak this year. Last year, we gave them Best Fried Shrimp.
The restaurant, which is just north of the Heights, at Yale and Crosstimbers, opened in 1946. It's decorated like a slightly eccentric Denny's, with barbecue sauce-red vinyl booths and coffee-colored carpeting. The two brothers who run it, Louis and Wayne Skrehot, look a lot alike. There was an old-timer telling them a story when we walked in, and I swear their heads were nodding in unison as they stood there side by side behind the cash register.
Just above the booth where we're seated, there's a photo of the two brothers in their youth, standing in front of the restaurant. Interestingly, they're wearing the same style of short-sleeve dress shirts in the picture that they have on today.
The old-fashioned coffee cups and the huge crown of meringue on the lemon and coconut cream pies are reminiscent of an upscale style of Southern diner that's seldom seen anymore. Many people in the graying crowd look like they've been coming here since the place was first built. Our waitress, an 11-year veteran, describes herself as "one of the new girls." It's no surprise that visiting food historians take an interest in this old temple of East Texas cuisine.
But when John T. Edge, the author of a new book called Fried Chicken: An American Story, was in town, he surprised me by suggesting we go eat chicken at Barbecue Inn. Two Houston restaurants, Frenchy's and The Breakfast Klub, are mentioned in the list of the country's top fried-chicken restaurants in the back of his book. (It's the fried chicken and waffles that got The Breakfast Klub on the list.) So if Edge likes the fried chicken at Barbecue Inn, how come it didn't make the book?
"There's a couple of reasons," the earnest young food writer explained. "For one thing, it's really just like the chicken at a lot of other Southern-fried chicken joints."
"Like which ones?" I asked.
"Well, like Deacon Burton's in Atlanta," he said. "It's an ascetic style of fried chicken, just dipped in flour and fried, but it's really wonderful," Edge said as we settled into a booth.
"Ascetic? That's a word that makes me think of porridge and gruel, not greasy fried chicken," I countered.
"Of course, all fried chicken comes with grease; the question is how much," he said. "The chicken at Barbecue Inn is pretty damn greaseless." It's ascetic, he said, in comparison to the cayenne-spiked chicken at Frenchy's or the hot sauce-doused chicken at Prince's in Nashville.
Our salads arrived on chilled glass plates with a basket of assorted Nabisco crackers on the side. I asked Edge if Barbecue Inn suffers in comparison to his national favorites because it uses a deep fryer instead of a cast-iron skillet. Calvin Trillin, the forefather of fried-chicken journalism, is largely responsible for the preservation of cast-iron-skillet chicken.
At about the time that most fried-chicken joints were replacing their old skillets with deep-fat fryers, Trillin wrote an article called "Chicken Wars" that canonized a cook in Kansas named Chicken Betty, who was devoted to her cast-iron skillet. His famous quote -- "a fried chicken cook with a deep fryer is a sculptor working with mittens" -- caused chicken fryers across the country to reconsider their cooking techniques.
But Edge doesn't share Trillin's views on the superiority of skillets anymore. "I may have started out with that prejudice, but after eating fried chicken all over the country, I changed my mind," he said. Austin Leslie of New Orleans swears by the deep fryer, and Edge is one of Leslie's biggest fans.
In fact, it's because of Austin Leslie's fascinating life story that Frenchy's in Houston gets so little ink. Frenchy's chicken is outstanding, Edge agreed, but if you have to pick one example of Creole fried chicken, it has to be Austin Leslie's.
Leslie's up-and-down career as the king of Creole cuisine is a cautionary tale for anybody thinking of opening a restaurant. At one time, Leslie was reputedly the inspiration for the short-lived television series Frank's Place. As Edge's book explains, the once famous chef and restaurant owner fell from fortune and is now quite content to be the fry cook at a ramshackle little joint called Jacques-Imo's in New Orleans, where he serves his secret-recipe fried chicken garnished with a "New Orleans confetti" of chopped garlic and parsley.
Frenchy's isn't entirely left out of the narrative. But oddly, it's fried chicken and wafflesthat Frenchy Creuzot's wife, Sallie, commentson in the book. Sallie Creuzot, who grew up in Virginia, remembers eating that famous combo for Sunday breakfast. Edge uses her testimony and others' to disprove various theories about the invention of chicken and waffles, including mine, which suggested that stoned jazz musicians were at the root of the phenomenon. Turns out chicken and waffles isn't recent -- it's a very old Southern phenomenon.
"To know about fried chicken, you have to have been weaned and reared on it in the South, period," writes another author, Jim Villas, in his book American Taste. But Edge, who is also the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, has a different opinion. Fried chicken transcends the provincial, he writes. Central Americans, Koreans, Serbians and Italian-Americans are among the new fried-chicken stars Edge discovered in his travels. They live in Los Angeles, Chicago, Kansas and New York, as well as the Old South. And their marinades, toppings and secret recipes have broadened the appeal of the iconic American dish.
I ordered my first plate of Barbecue Inn's Southern-fried chicken when I went there with John T. Edge. But to my surprise, Edge ordered the chicken-fried steak.
"Tired of fried chicken?" I asked him while mine cooled off.
"Not at all," he said. "It's just that Barbecue Inn has one of the best chicken-fried steaks I've ever eaten." I gave him a puzzled look. "When I was working on the book, I was trying to link chicken-fried steak and fried chicken. But I never got around to it," Edge said.
It turns out the real reason Edge, author of the definitive new book on fried chicken, suggested that we go to Barbecue Inn was so he could get some more of their amazing chicken-fried steak.
The batter-covered beef at Barbecue Inn is an exceptional example of the state of the art. It features the crunchiest crust and the juiciest meat imaginable. The bright white cream gravy is a little too sweet for me -- it tastes like it was made with evaporated milk. But a dose of Tabasco and black pepper remedies that problem.
Two chicken-fried steak patties come with the aforementioned salad and your choice of fries or a baked potato on the side. It's hard to choose between the hand-cut fries and the baked potato, which comes to the table along with an old-fashioned rotating stainless-steel carousel with sour cream, cheddar, chives and bacon bits. Edge went with the baked.
"But it's great chicken, isn't it?" he asked apologetically, dipping a bite of chicken-fried steak into the thick cream gravy.
"It sure is," I had to agree, as I gnawed on a juicy breast.
I go to Barbecue Inn as often as possible these days. You can't miss with the chicken-fried steak, the fried chicken or the fried shrimp. And now, I can say with some authority that the ribs aren't half bad either.
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