Photography by Beau Gustafson
The word barbecue surely does confuse some folks. It is commonly spelled many various ways: barbecue, barbeque, bar-b-q, bar-b-que, and BBQ. The word also refers to a cooking method and a cooking apparatus—a barbecue grill. But no matter how we spell it, we Southerners know the difference between barbecuing and grilling. Grilling is fast and hot, using direct heat from low-smoke fuels with flames coming into contact with the meat. Barbecuing is a slow process over indirect heat from high-smoke fuels, without the flame coming into contact with the meat.
Perhaps no one understands barbecue better than Jim ’N Nick’s. In 1985 the pitmaster at Birmingham’s Ollie’s Bar-B-Q, Phillip Adrey, taught Nick Pihakis how to properly smoke meats over wood coals. Pihakis and his late father, Jim, quickly executed on this barbecue education, opening the first Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q on Clairmont Avenue the same year. Today Jim ’N Nick’s has 33 restaurants in seven states. From barbecue smoke, meat type, and quality, to cooking time and sauce, they know barbecue.
Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q serves their barbecue and Southern fare in casual dining settings that also boast drive-thru windows and offer full-service catering. Some have patios and private dining rooms, dubbed the Pitmaster Room. Each restaurant is locally owned and operated. Nick’s original barbecue lesson plus all the recipes and techniques developed since are passed down to local owners, including smoking the meats for 18 hours. And the owners then pass these lessons onto the cooks and pitmasters in their locations. These various locations are not just dots on a map to Jim ’N Nick’s. Each one has its own unique community, where Jim ’N Nick’s develops relationships and gives back, helping schools, churches, and nonprofits in each community.
Pihakis’s reputation reaches wider than the seven states where the restaurants are located. He has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation, consecutively finishing as one of five finalists restaurateurs in the U.S. for Outstanding Restaurateur, including in 2015. Drew Robinson serves as executive chef for Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q. A former chef de cuisine at Highlands Bar and Grill, Robinson also had stints in Northern California after graduating from the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. In addition to Pihakis and Robinson, thousands of other individuals have contributed to the success of this Southern institution with their hard work and dedication to Pihakis’s vision.
We begin our meal with two tasty cocktails, the Top Shelf Margarita and the Dark and Stormy, and a basket of Jim ’N Nick’s famous cheese biscuits. A great app for sharing is the generous ring of smoked pork hot link served with a cup of delicious pimento cheese and sliced serrano peppers. Wings can be ordered hot or mild. We opted for mild to pair with the hot link. Five large, juicy wings are served with crisp carrot and celery sticks that we dip in a creamy bleu cheese dressing. And refreshing bites of firm deviled eggs add chilly protein to our apps feast.
We opt for the baby back ribs plate, which can be ordered in three sizes and with two sides. We choose the smallest with trimmings of my two favorites here, slaw and mac and cheese. Aromas of hickory smoke rise from the platter where the tender rib meat falls off the bone with each savory bite. The slaw compliments the pork, adding crunch and acidity. And the macaroni adds cheesy comfort to the plate. Kevin is a big fan of Jim ’N Nick’s brisket sandwich, so we choose the beef brisket plate with today’s special side of sweet potato casserole and another of my favorites, their collard greens. A generous plate of tender, melt-in-your-mouth marbled brisket is served sliced. I sprinkle pepper sauce and hot sauce atop the deep green collards. The piquant collard greens and the sweet potato casserole, topped with pecans and brown sugar, take me back to my granny’s table. For dessert we share an icy cold slice of lemon pie, which cleans the palate with its creamy tartness.