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Worth the Drive – Nick’s in the Sticks

Good steaks at great prices at Nick’s

By Jennifer Kornegay

A wreath was placed on the front of Nick’s in the Sticks in September,  in memory of longtime owner Lloyd Hegenbarth, who passed away Sept. 12. Hegenbarth became the third owner of the popular Tuscaloosa restaurant in the mid-80s. Photo by Laurel Stephenson
A wreath was placed on the front of Nick’s in the Sticks in September, in memory of longtime owner Lloyd Hegenbarth, who passed away Sept. 12. Hegenbarth became the third owner of the popular Tuscaloosa restaurant in the mid-80s. Photo by Laurel Stephenson

It’s that time again. Breezes are blowing cooler, leaves are donning their fall fashions, and, most importantly, pigskins are flying through the air. It’s the arrival of this last item every autumn that draws fans in droves to Tuscaloosa; they travel from near and far to watch the Crimson Tide do its thing. But whether football Saturdays find you chanting “Rammer Jammer” or not, you should make your way to T-town, too. Roll right on past campus, and bypass Bryant Denny Stadium. Instead, punch 4018 Culver Road into your phone’s GPS and head about 5 miles out of town on a two-lane road. If all goes well, you’ll soon arrive at a one-room, cinder block building with an American flag doing double duty as patriotic symbol and window covering and an awning striped with crimson and white jutting off the front. There’s only an empty metal frame where the sign once was, but you’re in the right place. You’ve made it to Nick’s Original Filet House, known to most as Nick’s in the Sticks, a humble-looking spot that’s been serving good steaks at great prices for more than 75 years. And you’re in for a big treat – after a big wait, that is. It doesn’t look like much; its bare-bones décor scheme inside and out definitely earns it a spot on Worth the Drive’s “serious dives” list. (And you’ll have to ask your waiter to tell you the story behind the dollar bills tacked to the ceiling, since I forgot to ask.) Yet, despite all this, plus rickety tables pushed a little too close together, there’re always more people than seats available, and the overflow is forced to wait out front. They wait in the heat; they wait in the cold; they wait in the rain; and most are wearing a smile. So what brings these happy people here and brings so many of them back? Three things:

  1. The filet and onion rings have been a mainstay at Nick’s in the Sticks for years. Photo by Jennifer Kornegay
    The filet and onion rings have been a mainstay at Nick’s in the Sticks for years. Photo by Jennifer Kornegay

    The filet. Don’t expect béarnaise sauce, blue cheese crumbles or lump crabmeat embellishing (distracting from) this steak served on a metal plate set down in a wooden charger in old-school steakhouse style. Probably Nick’s most popular item, it’s all about the meat. It’s bacon-wrapped, lightly seasoned and cooked to your degree of doneness. It’s soft and juicy, and for just under $10, it’s the arguably the best dinner deal around for miles.

  2. The onion rings. These hand-battered circles of crispy golden goodness are a smart side choice for any of Nick’s offerings. The onions have lost their sharpness (only sweetness remains) but not all of their crunch, and the light crust stays put when you take a bite.
  3. The Nicodemus. Myth and mystery surround the ingredient list for this ruby red drink like the foggy haze it often induces. Exactly what all goes into this adult punch-like concoction (always served in a Styrofoam cup) is unknown, but you don’t have to guess what you’ll feel like tomorrow if you have more than one or two. When you arrive, note the number of folks in the waiting group clutching the signature white cups. The Nicodemus could be a contributing factor to their afore-mentioned smiles.

These three things should be enough to pull you away from the areas of this college town that are easier to find and quicker to access. But if you require more incentives, consider these: fat, flavorful cheeseburgers, thick-cut steak fries, fried chicken livers and gizzards (if you’re into that) and cheap, super-cold beer. And you know I’m working hard to make my case when I quote poetry, but I think a little Robert Frost applies here: “I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” That, and two of those fun, fruity drinks in foam cups.

 Nick’s Original Filet House (a.k.a. Nick’s in the Sticks) • 4018 Culver Rd, Tuscaloosa, AL • (205) 758-9316 •

Jennifer Kornegay travels to an out-of-the way restaurant destination in Alabama every month. She may be reached for comment at j_kornegay@charter.net. Check out more of Jennifer’s food writing, recipes and recommendations on her blog, Chew on This at www.jenniferkornegay.com.