Nollowa is a hidden dive. The lights are low, the Cowboys game is always on, none of the beers are on draft, bottles of Johnnie Walker appear in front of you and seemingly every customer is looking for some action.
Also, the bar’s kitchen serves spicy octopus and chicken feet.
Welcome to Nollowa Bar and Grill, a little-known hole in the wall in the heart of Dallas’ old Koreatown. It’s a classic dive bar with a Korean accent and a strong whiff of nicotine.
The rules are a little different here. Sit at a high-walled, semi-private booth and other patrons will hardly be able to see you. These tables have little buzzer buttons to summon a server. Sit at the bar, on the other hand, and all hell can break loose. As my well-beered neighbor asked on my second visit to Nollowa, lit cigarette dangling from his fingers, “How did you find this place? This is a weird Asian bar.”
Both food and drink range from run-of-the-mill to, well, weird Asian bar. They’ve got Coors Light, Asahi, a range of soju and some hard liquor. There are wings, fries and a spicy ramen bowl, but also chicken feet. In the spicy octopus stir fry ($18), the seafood is cooked until regrettably chewy, but the super-thin noodles and hot red chili paste are utterly addicting, topped with black and white sesame seeds and the occasional jalapeño slice. Lightly fried savory pancakes ($15) the size of pizzas come generously stuffed with fillings like seafood and scallions.
There’s fried chicken with crisp, crunchy skin ($15), but note that the salt, served on the side, is a necessary addition.
Another addicting snack are sweet potato straws, not too salty but so crisp that the 6-inch pile on our plate disappeared without a second thought. We never saw a price for those crisps, because my dining companion pointed at the dish when it sat in front of another customer and said “Can we try that?” Our bartender took the question literally. She grabbed a sweet potato straw off the other customer’s plate and gave it to us.
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On another occasion, our bartender was distracted, so another woman behind the bar walked up to me. I smiled and told her the food was good. Then she smiled and, without explaining, placed her hands around my plate. A staring contest ensued before she broke the ice by asking, “Can you buy me a beer?” Things cleared up when (without a beer) she walked out from behind the bar and returned to a booth.
Social rules at Nollowa can be odd. Expect to meet forthright members of your preferred sex. Expect smoking. Don’t be surprised if the bartender pinches one of your fries. Whiteness – or for that matter, blackness – can make you an instant target for frank, protracted, drunk conversations about race relations. One extremely persistent, chatty patron insisted on congratulating my (Chinese-American) friend on his ability to hang out with a white person.
That’s the kind of bar Nollowa is. It’s a dive with the game on and cheap beers at the ready. But, even if you don’t order spicy octopus, you’ll feel like this dimly-lit Dallas dive is nothing like the others.
Nollowa Bar and Grill, 2560 Royal Lane, #102, Dallas. Daily 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.