By Noah Austin | Photograph by Steven Meckler
Generally speaking, lettuce and tomatoes are the supporting actors of the sandwich world: If you notice them, it’s probably because they’re doing something wrong. But on the spicy chicken sandwich at Nickel’s Diner, the crisp lettuce and bright-red, juicy tomatoes make a compelling case for more screen time, forming a perfect complement to a grilled, seasoned chicken breast with just the right amount of kick.
That comes as no surprise, though, given that Nickel’s owner Nick Rendon knows his fruits and veggies. A native of the Rio Rico area just north of Nogales, Rendon spent 30 years in the produce industry. When he was ready to move on, he bought himself a “retirement gift”: a space in a Rio Rico shopping center, the former site of several failed Italian and Mexican restaurants.
“In this area, there was no place for a good burger,” Rendon says. He gutted what was left of the previous Mexican joint and turned it into Nickel’s, a 1950s-themed diner that serves breakfast and lunch seven days a week. Why the ’50s? “Back then,” he says, “people did things right. People were honest.”
It seems the town was ready for something new, too. Rendon says business has boomed since he opened in 2012, and many loyal customers visit several times a week — or even twice a day. One devotee, seated at the bar, tells a story about two people who visited from Phoenix a while back and asked him if the food was any good. “I told them, ‘Well, it’s been open for two years, and I haven’t left yet,’ ” he says, laughing.
As you’d expect, bacon cheeseburgers and Philly cheesesteaks are popular lunch items, as is the slow-roasted barbecue, offered Monday through Friday. Meat lovers can get their choice of barbecued beef, chicken, ribs or pulled pork, along with two sides, for a mere $7. Breakfast includes French toast, omelets and fresh-baked cinnamon rolls and blueberry muffins. And the whole menu is always available. “You can show up at 6 a.m. and get a burger, or you can show up at 2 p.m. and have an omelet,” Rendon says.
During a recent weekday lunch hour, the place is packed, as usual. Rendon alternates between English and Spanish as he chats with his regulars. There’s an easy, small-town camaraderie, and Rendon and his staff — many of whom have been showing up since opening day — take pride in making their customers feel right at home.
That includes not having to deal with the U.S. Mint’s most maligned denomination. There aren’t any pennies here, because Rendon rounds all checks to the nearest nickel — hence the name. “Pennies are just a pain,” he says.
So, the worst-case scenario is that you might pay a few cents extra at Nickel’s Diner. Think of it as a worthwhile surcharge for the best tomatoes around.
Nickel's Diner is located at 1060 Yavapai Drive, Suite 1, in Rio Rico. For more information, call 520-281-1040 or visit www.nickelsdiner.com.