Barbeque is to Alabama as gumbo is to Louisiana as chili is to Texas and so on. In other words, people living elsewhere generally think that’s what we do best (or possibly at all).
So naturally when I moved to Birmingham in 1996, I was on the prowl for the best of the best authentic slow-cooked spare ribs I could find. Then, as now, there were a large number of barbeque joints to choose from. But having sampled the famous, like Dreamland Ribs, and the not-so-well-known, like Full Moon, Golden Rule, or Johnny Ray’s, there was one barbeque joint I kept coming back to—the then-10-year-old local chain, Jim ‘N Nick’s.
And that was weird in a way. I mean, how does a restaurant owned by a Greek-American kid who worked his whole life in an Italian restaurant end up making the best barbeque in the biggest city of a state known for the stuff? Who cares. He just does—still—to this day—15 years later.
In fact, Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q is better than ever and is no longer just locally known. Everybody in the world now knows about Nick Pihakis (the aforementioned Greek kid). He is a semi-finalist for the 2011 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur. That’s right. Pihakis v. Steve Ells of Chipotle, Roger Berkowitz of Legal Sea Foods, etc.
If a James Beard Award nominated barbeque joint seems impossible, it’s only because you’ve never eaten at Jim ‘N Nick’s. The Hamburger Dave or The Burger 1920, a Company Salad with shaved Parmesan and pulled pork, a big, meaty rack of 14-hour spare ribs, an onion ring appetizer or side, creamed spinach or spinach and artichoke dip, the smoked pork hot links, hand-cut fries, lemon icebox or chocolate or coconut cream or pecan pie, and even the complementary cornbread muffins are all the best I’ve ever eaten anywhere. Moreover, at a time in our collective culinary history when the norm is for quality to tank as expansion occurs, Jim ‘N Nick’s has done the exact opposite.
Back in the day, 11 years ago, for example, my favorite Jim ‘N Nick’s was on Highway 31 near the Riverchase Galleria. It was head and shoulders above the others. And even as late as three or four years ago, the Highway 280/Greystone location was still my least favorite of the Galleria, Five Points South, or Highway 280 alternatives.
But then an unexpected thing happened: the quality got substantially better at the Five Points and Highway 280 restaurants. Now they are all my favorite locations. Hmm.
In other words, as this chain has expanded, the consistency between locations has not only improved but the overall food and even the décor is now better than it ever was. Could Jim ‘N Nick’s recent emphasis of locally-sourced ingredients have anything to do with it? I think so.
And diners are not the only beneficiaries of this constant emphasis on improvement at Jim ‘N Nick’s. Jim ‘N Nick’s has also benefitted ’cause, let me tell you, a similar salad at another fine local barbeque establishment goes for a good bit less than the one at Jim ‘N Nick’s and yet no one cares. People literally stand in line for the good stuff.
So, 25-year-old barbeque chain, exceedingly great food, local ingredients, higher than average prices, James Beard Award semi-finalist, and lines to get in the door. Yup. That about sums it up.
In short, Pihakis and company have found a way to raise the bar in barbeque. What’s not to love?