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Fish fry, est. 1972 

Onion rings and fried pies are picks at Nick's.

click to enlarge A DAMN FINE LUNCH: Barbecue brisket and onion rings at Nick's in Carlisle.
  • A DAMN FINE LUNCH: Barbecue brisket and onion rings at Nick's in Carlisle.

There's a novelty place in Amarillo, Texas, with a restaurant, brewery, hotel and Texas-shaped swimming pool called the Big Texan Steak Ranch, whose far-flung billboards boast a "FREE 72. OZ. STEAK DINNER." (Free, that is, if you can manage the formidable task of eating it all.) Nick's Bar-B-Q & Catfish in Carlisle throws no such gauntlet, but it does share the Big Texan's marketing strategy of placing multiple billboards far enough away from the actual restaurant to create the impression that it's a destination in and of itself, some place famous enough for you to pay attention to well before the exit sign is in view.

That impression was reflected inside, too, as we drove past a scant few dining options along state Highway 13 in Carlisle — Sonic Drive-In, Subway, Pizza N More, Chester's Fried Chicken — to reach the sprawling, saloon-style building at the strike of noon on a Friday. Diners entering Nick's are met first with the to-go counter that bifurcates the structure into two separate dining rooms. It was bustling when we visited, with a ringleader calling out loudly to the growing crowd: "Anybody dining in today?"

Nick's makes its own BBQ sauce in hot and mild varieties, a selection of which the restaurant places front and center for waiting customers to peruse. Or, diners waiting for takeaway orders can check out the lobby wall, where photographs of some of its more celebrated diners hang: Marty Stuart, one hit-wonder Mel McDaniel, The Doobie Brothers and Carl Perkins (twice). Their country radio contemporary Mary Chapin Carpenter was among them, too, not photographed but there in spirit through the loudspeakers with "Down at the Twist and Shout." Brushed metal signs with nostalgic scenes of a bygone Route 66 hung on the wall, interspersed with more oddball pieces — a painting of a cow's nose at short range, vintage prints demarcating different styles of forks and spoons as if they were scientific botanical illustrations.

Nick's menu is huge and squarely Southern American: fried shrimp, smoked chicken sandwiches, taco salads, BBQ nachos, grilled chicken salads, fried dill pickles, cheeseburgers, rib plates to pair with fried okra or steamed veggies, smoked kielbasa. We took a cue from the establishment's name and ordered the Small Catfish Dinner ($9.99) and the Regular BBQ Beef Sandwich Basket ($8.49).

The "regular" BBQ beef sandwich, which came out swiftly in the hands of an attentive and gracious server, was enormous. God only knows what size we'd have gotten if we ordered the "jumbo" version ($8.99). Lightly sauced (with Nick's signature, we presumed) and cradled between two large hamburger buns were layers of brisket that, while certainly not the caliber of a dry-smoked competition specimen, made for a damn fine lunch. Sandwiches come with two sides, for which we picked the hand-battered onion rings (also offered as an appetizer for $2.99, which we'd discover was completely worth the double billing) and baked beans. The beans weren't adding much to the conversation. Like most bulk-simmered baked beans, they were sweet but unremarkable. Boring beans were forgotten and forgiven, though, after trying the onion rings. Liked baked beans, bragworthy onion rings can be difficult; even if you go to the trouble of making a homemade batter, the onions can suffer from too light a frying, slipping out and around their deep-fried cocoon so that you never really get a bite that's both onion and ring. These were among the best we've had — as in, ever. The batter was crisp and flaky, expertly fried so that, like a stellar beignet, they seemed light and delicate despite the caloric heaviness they undoubtedly acquired during their time in the fryer basket. The sandwich plate came with a sidecar of perfunctory cole slaw — nothing to write home about but hard to quibble with, which is maybe the point of cole slaw.

Maybe that's the idea behind fried catfish, too. For all its symbolism as a icon of Southern cuisine, the goal with fried catfish seems to be to stay out of its way, keeping the batter crispy and resisting the urge to season liberally, as they do at Flying Fish when asked to "make it snappy." If that's the case, then the catfish at Nick's is adequate. The catfish we had wasn't seasoned heavily enough to offend anyone, nor was it anything we'd be inclined to veer off the interstate for. It had that slightly chewy texture that we'd have happily shrugged off if we were using tongs to pull it out of a large aluminum pan at a company picnic or a family reunion. Here, though, it was clear that one way Nick's manages to churn out suppers in volume seven days a week is to pre-fry it in batches, rather than to fry it to order. Atop the fish were all the usual suspects: a dill pickle, a lemon, a generous slice of raw onion and an ample serving of what we suspect was homemade tartar sauce. The "tater babies" (think truck stop-style fried potato logs, except tiny) tempted us from the list of side dishes out of sheer curiosity and were similarly chewy. They also came with a side of ranch dressing that, though it seemed extraneous at the time, is probably your best bet if you are in Carlisle and in need of something in which to dip a "tater baby."

Our impression of the since-1972 Carlisle staple? Nick's Bar-B-Q and Onion Rings doesn't exactly make for a billboard-ready branding strategy, but it's a damn good guide for what to order for lunch.

Nick's Catfish & Bar-B-Q
1012 Bobby L. Glover Hwy.
Carlisle
870-552-3887
nicksbq.com

Quick bite

The dessert options at Nick's include a "Cake of the Day" ($4.99/slice) and "Grandma's Homemade Pecan Pie" ($2.69), both of which you can top with a scoop of vanilla ice cream ($1.49). We bypassed both and left town with one of the Hand Made Fried Pies we saw lauded on the restaurant's tabletop napkin dispensers. The pies come in apple, apricot, peach or coconut, and the decadently flaky coconut cream pie we'd taken to go barely made it 10 minutes down the road before being inhaled.

Hours

10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday.

Other info

No alcohol, credit cards accepted. Bulk orders available.


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