MEATY: Nick's in Carlisle.
CARLISLE — As somebody once sang, Papa was a rollin’ stone, and so is this reviewer. Even with unleaded darned near topping the price of buttermilk, I still find myself darting to and fro, always on one interstate or another, waiting for that inevitable moment when some trucker gets choked up while watching the ending of “The Way We Were” on the DVD player attached to his sun visor, reaches up to wipe his tears and smashes my car like a cassava against the concrete divider. No really. I said it was inevitable, didn’t I?
With as much driving as I do, I’ve come to love those off ramp restaurants. Not the chains, but the billboard-happy independents. Fifty miles out, they start trolling for appetites. Best Pie in the State! 100 Percent Black Angus beef! Voted best 92-foot seafood buffet in the nation! Kids eat free!
How many times, oh Lord, have those neon grottos saved me from scarfing another pale, ketchup-drowned hockey puck of a burger? Plenty.
Recently, on the return leg of an arduous schlep to East Arkansas — an unsuccessful go at catching a glimpse of the ivory-billed woodpecker — I was just about ready to give in to hunger and down a McPuck when I began hearing the call of Nick’s Bar-B-Q in Carlisle. Well, seeing the call is more appropriate. Nick’s billboards line the interstate, enticing weary travelers with the promise of life-sustaining ’cue. When I finally made it to the right exit, my stomach had been fluffed enough by those billboards that I wheeled off so fast people probably thought I was trying to ditch the cops.
Like most of the joints that succeed in wooing me off the interstate, Nick’s isn’t a very picturesque place. It pretty much looks like somebody’s polebarn, covered in siding, with a constant halo of fragrant smoke hanging over it. At the top of what seemed to be a 500-foot pole near the edge of the parking lot, a flaking fiberglass bull with “Nick’s” painted on the side stands watch, looking like the world’s only high-diving bovine, struck with the world’s longest-running case of performance-anxiety freeze.
Inside, same story. Though Nick’s claims to have been established in 1972, they obviously moved to their current digs from somewhere else. The decor is what I can only term Hillbilly Chic, that sorta rustic/sorta country scheme that permeates most Winnebago-trade restaurants in Arkansas, the walls covered in stuff Grandma probably should have donated to the war effort while Grampa was off fighting the Nazzeys and couldn’t stop her.
As has become the mantra of this reviewer, however: It’s not what’s on the walls, it’s what’s on the plate. From the list of appetizers that included fried dill pickles ($3.99) and coconut shrimp ($4.99), I tried the fried green tomatoes. They’re kind of an acquired taste, but one I acquired with a vengeance some years back. These arrived like they should: scorching hot, six golden brown wheels ready to get sunk axle-deep in a side of ranch dressing.
The simple fact of the matter is that after a lifetime of eating fried green tomatoes wherever I could get them, I may have finally found the perfect fried green tomato. The ones at Nick’s were simply the best I’ve ever had in my life; flash fried so the tomato inside didn’t turn to a limp disc of goo, with an almost sweet coating that was more flour than cornmeal, I’m not ashamed to say that when the waitress came by to collect my plate, I sort of huddled over the three remaining tomatoes until she got the hint and went away. They went in a box, and later disappeared somewhere between Remington Arms and the Little Rock city limits.
Stoked by the appetizer, I was ready to rock by the time my dinner arrived, a mound of smoky chopped pork drenched in a thin sienna-colored sauce, served with Texas toast and baked beans (6.99). For my ’cue-loving pal back at the office, I got a half-slab of pork ribs on deck ($8.99).
Considering I had almost given in to Demon Ronald an hour earlier, my meal was more than fine. The pork was nicely chopped (though mercifully not minced, a common mistake which sends all the flavor straight to the bottom of the steamtray and leaves otherwise fine pork tasting like a slightly greasy mouthful of mulch), and very flavorful, with a robust sweetness that suggested Nick’s goes the extra mile and finds some of the less-common hardwoods to feed their smoker. The sauce, however, was slightly vinegary for my taste, and could have stood an additional pinch of sweetness — though I do tend to complain when it comes to barbecue sauce.
As for the ribs, even lukewarm after a mad dash from Devall’s Bluff, my pal said they were good, with a slight crispiness on the outside and scads of juicy meat on the inside, tender and smoked to the bone. For $8.99, he said, this load of spare ribs was a steal. He also proclaimed the spicy tomatoey-vinegar sauce as good as any he’d tried since he discovered fabled Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, Ala., a few years back.
Overall, Nick’s is a fine little place for a respite from the road. It’s a sure bet for Little Rockians inbound from Memphis — probably even worth a day trip for hardcore smoke lovers. Whatever the case, it will definitely hit the spot much better than anything dished up by a clown.
Interstate 40, Exit 183
Though I was too stuffed to indulge, the waitress (who called everybody in the place “Hon”) swore by the fried cheesecake ($4.99), which looked like heaven on a plate when served to other diners. Another kill for another day.
10 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week.
All credit cards accepted. No alcohol.