Jimmy Niwa turns the knob, and the grill in the center of the table roars to life. Fire licks below the iron grate. A steaming bowl is walked to the table, and Niwa lights up. Buta kakuni, a stew of pork belly that's been tenderized in rich, sweet-salty soy ginger, offset by pickled ginger, mustard greens and a sunflower-hued soft-boiled egg, is one of his childhood favorites.
“I walk by it every day, and I’m like, don’t eat it,” he says. The bowl of buta kakuni is a hint of what’s to come. Niwa's version of yakiniku — Japanese barbecue — is the feast that you imagine Odin would order after a battle.
Tongue, sliced so you know it’s tongue, is bathed in garlic oil and sesame oil before it hisses on the iron grill. Immediately, diamond char marks appear. You flip, sip beer and flip again. It is one of the best ways to eat meat in Deep Ellum. It’s also one of the best ways to eat barbecue in the city.
Then, the A5 wagyu arrives.
The USDA grades beef in three ways: prime, choice and select. Tenderness, juiciness and flavor, along with measurements of the lean meat yields that a carcass carries, determine the score. As Niwa explains, even the best prime beef falls below the lowest grade of wagyu (which means cattle in Japanese). The best wagyu is given an A1 through A5 grade.
The prime is a chunk of firetruck-red beef. The A5 wagyu is sliced into two quarter-inch-thick panels with wild striations of cloud-white fat. It looks like it was flown in from Olympus. Niwa places it gently on the grill, a char forming on one side. The wagyu hisses and pops in the high heat like an old Beatles record. Then he flips the wagyu panel, letting the heat whisper to the other side, and drops it on my plate.
The flavor is mountainous; it’s a tandem skydive with a friendly cow, the cow carrying you on its back. It tastes at once of earth and air and cattle. After one panel of A5, I felt like I could channel the cattle's name, likes and dislikes. Wagyu Marvin, for example (let's just call the wagyu Marvin), enjoys the Netflix series Dark, cold IPAs and swimming. (Niwa assures me, without jokes, that some breeds actually do consume beer for relaxing.)
Niwa also bristles at the misuse of the terms Kobe and wagyu.
“It bothers me only when it’s incorrect," he says. “I just hate to see Kobe style or wagyu style. I hate to see someone advertising wagyu when it’s not.”
The grill in the center of the table is a refreshing blast of air in Deep Ellum. It seems to break down the walls of the restaurant, allowing your table to escape in family-style sharing, cold drinks and grilled mushrooms.
On March 29, Niwa Japanese BBQ will celebrate Meat Day (Niku No Hi). It’s a popular Japanese holiday that occurs every 29th day of the month. It'll have specials — a $29 platter of rib eye, skirt steak, hanger and sirloin is the way to go — and Sapporo running from 4-10 p.m.
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Dallas means meat experts: We (our chefs) know fire and wood and char. Any list of the great cooks that ignores our pitmasters is in serious need of a cast-iron skillet to the skull.
The best part about Niwa Japanese BBQ is this: You’re the pitmaster. The restaurant flies in true Japanese cattle steaks and bathes them in garlic or soy, or brushes them with sesame oil. Then, it's all up to you.
Later, after deviled eggs topped with tiny rectangles of A5 wagyu, along with the sweet, smoky smell of tender hanger steak charring on the table grill, there’s an intoxicating feeling of good soy and good beef in my bloodstream. It’s a happy Meat Day.
Niwa Japanese BBQ, 2939 Main St.