Friday Lunch Edition: Niki’s West

I realize it’s not Friday, but I’m starting a new installment on this blog called Friday Lunch. My company is awesome enough to let us work a flex schedule, which means I work longer days Monday-Thursday so I can have half days on Friday. Since my office is out in the suburbs, my options for a good, non-chain restaurant lunch out are very limited. Fortunately, I can use my Fridays for meeting friends for lunch and trying out new places. Seeing as it’s Thursday and I just came up with this idea, I wanted to go ahead and write about last week’s Friday lunch so I can still post about tomorrow’s in a timely manner. 🙂

Last Friday, I finally got the chance to go to Niki’s West, a meat-and-three place that has been serving up down-home Southern food in Birmingham for more than 55 years. If you’re not from the South, a meat-and-three place is where you order your choice of meat (normally from the day’s specials) and three “vegetables” to go along with it. I put vegetables in quotes because in the South we are a little loose on our definition of vegetables. Your vegetable sides can be anything from fried okra to broccoli casserole to macaroni and cheese (like I said, loose definition).

Niki’s West is out in North Birmingham. Off the beaten path, but definitely not a secret. The parking lot was packed with cars so I knew we were in for something good. When we got inside, we joined the zigzag line and grabbed a tray and silverware. The day’s meats were posted on a board on the wall and included Fried Pork Chops, Turkey and Dressing, Greek Baked Chicken, and Lemon Pepper Catfish, among others.

Ordering at Niki’s is a process, and you have to be prepared to know what you want or else you’ll be pushed along. When you get up to the extensive buffet, there are about 6-8 people serving the food down the line. You first order your meat and before your plate is even handed to you, the next person is asking you if you want broccoli casserole or sweet potatoes and the next one is asking if you want green beans or collard greens and the next is asking about mac and cheese or salad, and so on until you’ve completed the line.

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You have to be strategic though and go in with at least an idea of what you want. My boyfriend said the first time he went he panicked and just got the first three sides they asked about and later realized there were other options down the line that he wanted. But there is nothing to be nervous about – it’s just a well-oiled machine and the process adds to the fun!

It also helps if you go with someone so you can try several different things. Luckily, I went with the boyfriend, Wesley, and we had a strategic plan to not order what the other was ordering. We ended up with a great spread of sides! After you go through the line, you are escorted to a table and a waitress will bring you your drinks and check.

Now, what did we get to eat? I opted for the Turkey and Dressing as my meat, and for my three sides I got collard greens, mac and cheese, and fried okra. Wesley got Country Fried Steak, green beans, sweet potatoes, and broccoli rice casserole (but of course we shared all our sides). You also get your choice of cornbread muffins or a roll, which don’t count as an extra side.

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Everything was so delicious. It was all hearty and comforting and tasted like it came out of your grandmother’s kitchen. The dressing that came with the turkey was a cornbread dressing, like any true Southern dressing, and the cornbread muffins were moist and flavorful. The fried okra wasn’t soggy and had the perfect light breading on it, and the green beans had a sweet, vinegary sauce on them. The mac and cheese was creamy and had a layer of cheese baked on top. Yum! My favorite side was the collard greens, though. They weren’t bitter and they had a fresh and flavorful taste. I had also never tried Country Fried Steak so I stole a bite of Wesley’s and it was so good! I loved the gravy on it.

I will definitely be going back to Niki’s West to try even more of the “vegetables” and specials. There is nothing better than good ol’ Southern comfort food. What are some of your favorite meat-and-three dishes?

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