BARROW’S SHADY INN
Hollygrove: 2714 Mistletoe.
Finishing at or near the top of the All-Time Best Fried Catfish In New Orleans list, Barrow’s Shady Inn opened during World War II in the predominantly black Hollygrove neighborhood–although, like many neighborhoods in New Orleans in those years, it was really pretty well mixed.
William Barrow knew a couple of important things in 1943. First, that he could make his place a center of social life in his neighborhood by making it attractive and classy. Practically from the time he opened, he began renovating and adding on to the restaurant. When The Beverly nightclub and casino in nearby Old Jefferson shut down in the 1950s, Barrow bought a lot of the neon signs and installed them over his door.
Second, he knew how to fry catfish. He bought wild fish from Des Allemands and fried them whole, after marinating them in a recipe that would pass down to two generations of his descendants, never shared with anyone else.
In the 1960s, Barrow’s created a controversy among its customers when it began serving filleted catfish. That would ultimately push the whole fish off the menu. The filleted fish may or may not have been as good as the whole fish, but it’s hard to imagine how any catfish could have been much better than Barrow’s fillets. They were fried to order (it took longer to come out than in the mass-production places) after spending time in the secret marinade and being coated with an incomparably light cornmeal hybrid. Billy Barrow (second generation) told me that it was “cream meal”–a mixture of corn meal and corn flour.
He told me that while we shot a television piece on the restaurant in the 1980s. While wandering around the kitchen, I saw a large tub of catfish fillets in a reddish marinade. The secret stuff! So there was hot sauce in it. Or was that ketchup? I don’t know. Billy Barrow kept his father’s secret.
When the fish came to the table, it was the definitive golden brown and so hot you shouldn’t have eaten it right away. But there was no way to keep from diving in. It was so good and light, with that background glow of red pepper, that you wanted to inhale it. A friend called it “popcorn fish,” so irresistible was it. You could eat it with your fingers like popcorn, too. This fish needed no sauces or lemon, no salt or pepper, even. Perfection.
Catfish was about all they had for a long time, until Billy Barrow’s mother said she thought some home-style pot food would be well-received. She cooked that up on weekdays for lunch until she retired. Even then, no menu was needed or ever printed. Signs on the wall told you the current price for the catfish platter, with hand-made potato salad (also great) and a couple of slices of Bunny bread. The price was always a little higher than you were used to paying for fried catfish, but the goodness was incomparably better.
Barrow’s was little-known to people outside Hollygrove. Mistletoe was a back street you wouldn’t likely travel unless you lived around there. Then the Earhart Expressway was cut through in the late 1970s, a half-block lake side of Barrow’s. With its neon stars, it was very visible from the new thoroughfare, and many new customers discovered what a place it was.
The premises were a bit unusual. The main items of decoration were lava lamps from the original era of those fixtures–long before they became cool again. The walls were hung with photographs of shoes, of all things. Billy Barrow liked being well-heeled. He was a force in bringing up the neighborhood, and bought up a lot of nearby houses to renovate them.
For a long time, children weren’t allowed at Barrow’s. Billy told me that this was because the bar wasn’t separated from the dining room, and there was a city ordinance about that. I told him I could think of a lot of neighborhood restaurants where the bar and the tables were in the same room and kids were allowed. He gave me a look I understood immediately. You don’t get slack if you look black.
Billy Barrow died in the late 1990s, when he was hit by a car as he crossed the street in front of the restaurant. His daughter and her husband took over the restaurant and ran it without any drop in quality (they had the secret marinade formula) until Hurricane Katrina. The Hollygrove neighborhood was not only deeply flooded by the levee breaks, but the water flowed through the area, doing unusually great damage to all the homes, and Barrow’s, too. Barrow’s briefly on the West Bank after the storm, but it didn’t catch on there. It’s one of those places we hope comes back, but as each year passes it seems less and less likely.