Monday, January 25, 2016

Finding and Appreciating Jim ‘N Nick’s

The sign by the road says it all.

Have you been traveling down a highway when you saw a sign for a restaurant and thought, “That’s a place I’ve been wanting to visit”? As I was driving through the panhandle of Florida on U.S 98 heading west into Destin, the neon sign for Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q caught my attention.

On arrival you are greeted with a basket of mni cheese biscuits, a specialty of Jim 'N Nick's, which also sell the mix in bags.

Jim ‘N Nick’s serves barbecue I’ve wanted to taste since I first learned about it from Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization that documents, studies, and celebrates the food cultures of the American South. As I have attended SFA events, I’ve noticed that Jim ‘N Nick’s is one of the dedicated SFA corporate donors and actively promotes SFA’s events, programs, and workshops.

Riblets, a small plate or appetizer to share, are bite-sized pieces of smoked ribs.

Jim ‘N Nick’s, a casual chain that features slow-cooked barbecue, began in Birmingham, Alabama, where the late Jim Pihakis with his son Nick opened the first restaurant in 1985. Nick learned how to smoke meat slowly over wood coals by apprenticing under Phillip Audrey, pitmaster of Ollie’s Bar-B-Q in Birmingham. Jim ‘N Nick’s has grown to 34 locations in seven states. Almost half are in the state of Alabama, and four are as far away from my home as Denver.

A pulled-pork sandwich comes with two sides -- collards and beans were my choices.

The food definitely doesn’t taste like it was prepared by a chain, perhaps because its network of local producers provides pastured-raised heritage breed pork and each restaurant is locally owned and operated. Jim ‘N Nick’s says, “All BBQ has the same three basic ingredients: smoke, meat, and time,” and it combines all three superbly. It refers to its classic pulled pork sandwich as “pig on a bun,” which John T. Edge, SFA director, calls “the ideal pulled-pork sandwich, the workaday sustenance of all BBQ aficionados.”

John T. Edge's observation is highlighted in the menu.

With such a lofty portrayal, I couldn’t order anything else. With a pulled pork sandwich, I ordered slow-cooked collards and baked beans. To accompany a sandwich or plate, Jim ‘N Nick’s offers several favorite sides, or “scratch-made trimmings.” Also on the menu are mac & cheese, coleslaw, potato (mashed, chips, fried, or baked), fresh fruit, and house or potato salad. Even with several cheese biscuits, I saved room -- a challenge -- to finish with banana pudding.

Banana pudding is always on the menu as a dessert.

Everything brought to the table was superior. It’s hard to pick a favorite, although the cheese biscuits are a great way to begin a meal and the riblets that my wife ordered were perfectly prepared. Although I generally don’t consider a chain to be topic for this blog, Jim ‘N Nick’s is definitely an exception that deserves praise and a place that I would visit when I’m in one of its locations again.

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