Barbecue Inn is a beloved restaurant in Houston, but not because of its barbecue. Ask a local where to find the best fried chicken, chicken fried steak, or fried shrimp—oh, the fried shrimp—and the seemingly unlikely name is likely to come up. I first ate there years ago with J.C. Reid, the Houston Chronicle’s barbecue columnist. He avoided the barbecue completely. The fryers are so much more legendary at Barbecue Inn than the smoker that he didn’t think the decision required an explanation.
“There’s a jillion joints here in Houston for barbecue,” Barbecue Inn co-owner Wayne Skrehot (pronounced scray-hot) told me, “but you can’t get fried shrimp, fried chicken, chicken fried steak, stuffed crab at all those other places.” He’s got a point. Houston is particularly rich in great barbecue across the metro area, and competition is fierce. Ray’s BBQ Shack comes to mind when thinking of good fried catfish, but there might not be finer barbecue surf-and-turf in town than Barbecue Inn’s fried shrimp and pork ribs.
Wayne’s son and business partner, David Skrehot, puts a lot of pride into the oft-overlooked barbecue side of the menu. He left the business for a string of sales jobs after college, but came back to work with his dad after his uncle’s retirement. David said they’ve improved the barbecue quality over the past several years, and have even developed some new rub recipes. I enjoyed the not-too-tender St. Louis ribs (available as a platter or appetizer) on a recent visit, and would gladly order them again. The same goes for the brisket-stuffed baked potato, served deconstructed. A pat of butter the size of a Matchbox car was melting inside the hot, halved potato. Sloppy joe-style chopped brisket, with the sauce already mixed in, was served on the side, and a tower of plastic containers filled with shredded cheese, sour cream, and green onions were there for the taking. You’re free to build it however you like.
Barbecue and beer were the only items on the menu when Wayne’s parents, Louis and Nell Skrehot, opened the place in 1946. The pit was inside the tiny restaurant kitchen from the start. “He laid the brick and built [the pit] himself,” Wayne said of his father. Wayne was four years old when it opened, but he remembers the wood floors, the jukebox, and what he calls a “marble machine,” which is another name for a pinball machine. He also recalls all the fans. “There was no AC,” he said laughing. There must have been no confusion when walking through the doors into the smoky restaurant back then that barbecue was the star.
Louis was the pitmaster from the beginning, and Nell ran the dining room. There was no brisket on the pits, according to Wayne. “We were using chuck back then.” They’d slice and serve it just like the brisket today. Louis added all the fried menu items in the fifties. They even served tamales at one point. The original pit had to be dismantled when the building was scraped to make way for the expansion of Crosstimbers Road. The current building was built in 1965 on the same site with a new brick pit. That pit has since been removed. The barbecue is now smoked with post oak in a Southern Pride rotisserie that they installed around 1981. David chalks up its long lifespan to good maintenance. “They’re always trying to sell us a new one,” he said.
The barbecue methods might be updated, but they still use the same recipes for the fried food that Louis developed sixty-some years ago. Fried shrimp is the current best seller on the menu. There’s no heavy breading, or puny shrimp. They have a sweetness—I couldn’t tell whether it came from the batter or the shrimp—but these aren’t the bland shrimp in need of cocktail sauce that you might be used to. “We only buy wild-caught gulf shrimp,” David said proudly. They’ve been using the same supplier for 25 years, and it’s serving them well.
Neither David nor Wayne would offer any secrets on the batter ingredients for their fried shrimp or chicken. Of the chicken fried steak, all David would say was, “We go through a lot of trouble, so you end up with a nice, tender product.” The two orbs of CFS layered over each other were indeed tender, and just the right amount of salty. They come covered in an alabaster gravy with a hint of sweetness. The gravy, unblemished with black pepper, could pass for a béchamel. For the side, I’d recommend the fries, which are hand cut every day and pleasantly crisp.
Chicken fried chicken is the unheralded sleeper hit of the menu, but the standard fried chicken is famous for a reason. The surface of a fried chicken thigh was like the cratered outer crust of an asteroid. The crunch was audible throughout the dining room on a quiet afternoon. I asked more than once for the method, and David only offered glimpses. “Honestly, it’s so simple it’ll make your head spin,” he said. It’s about attention to detail. “You have to have the right-sized chicken, the right temperature, and you need to make sure you have nice, fresh chicken,” David continued. As for the extreme crunchiness, he says it’s not about the ingredients, but the dedication to cooking it fresh. It doesn’t go into the fryer until you order it, so it will take 25-30 minutes to fry. From the fryer, it goes straight to your table. There are no heat lamps. “Once it goes under a heat lamp, moisture develops, the crunch goes away, and the meat starts drying out,” David warned.
Barbecue Inn remains as relevant today as it was seventy years ago because of the dedication to quality and utter lack of pretense. The décor is a little dated, the salads are simply iceberg lettuce and chopped tomatoes properly drowned in ranch dressing, and the staff provide a genuine, earnest hospitality. It’s a family restaurant operated by the same family, and it shows. Two employees have worked for the restaurant for 51 years. I’m not sure how long our server has been there, but at the end of a huge meal our table had a single rib left on the plate. I asked her if she could take it back to the kitchen to batter and deep fry it. She laughed off the request at first, but came back, snagged the plate, and gave me a wink. She returned with a golden-battered rib, which she promised was an off-off menu item that she’d never served. I swiped it through a pool of ranch dressing and savored a new favorite. It seems everything out of the fryer tastes great at Barbecue Inn, even the barbecue.
116 W Crosstimbers Rd.
Open Tues-Sat 10:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m.