It’s about smoke and charcoal. The flavor is as familiar as a home backyard grill and as eye-openingly new as a late-night yakitori at the same time. There are a number of burger experiences in Deep Ellum: We citizens get the workhorse-classic (a book-thick cheeseburger at Adair’s Saloon), the mini gems at Easy Slider, and coming soon, owner Jimmy Niwa’s clean, beautiful, fire-lavished Wagyu burger. It has clean flavors and construction and all the comforting smoke-char of a sandwich cooked on your own grill.
"The idea was to give everyone something familiar," Niwa says. In a few weeks — likely early October — Niwa Japanese BBQ will start serving lunch. A fried chicken sandwich and a burger are centerpieces. At night, the grill on the center of Niwa’s tables howls to life, and cold Japanese beer accompanies conversation and heat-hissing meat. “It’s kind of intimidating,” Niwa says of asking Dallasites trying to tackle the grill-your-own-food experience during lunch. So, he’s doing a burger his way.
The real stuff — true Wagyu (Japanese cattle that’ve been coddled into a fat-marbled existence) — is ground in-house with short rib. They do a coarse grind, using a limited amount of Wagyu fat and beef, season the patty with salt and pepper and slide it onto a Binchotan charcoal grill. A thin layer of smoke, good smoke like a fire in the middle of nature, envelops the grind. The flavor wafts through until the end.
“The idea is that Wagyu beef fat ... you can taste it,” Niwa says. “If we did pure Wagyu, the grill would just light up. There’s no way to do it unless you’re going to do it White Castle-like and steam it.”
Over the burger goes a tempura-battered onion ring, thin, the batter lightly popping with air pockets. Around it is a creamy sauce of caramelized onions, mushroom, tofu and feta. Then, a thick slice of good tomato and a bolt of lettuce. Niwa’s still tinkering with the bun; he’s hoping a local baker will make a Japanese milk bun. It’s buttery-soft, charred on the flat top. Halfway through the burger, I’ve got images of campfires and pine trees in my head.
The simplicity of the thing — a single slice of lettuce that tastes as fresh as untouched-grass, a bun-spanning tomato and medium rare beef — is refreshing. There are many burger experiences in Deep Ellum, more and more erupting around the city every day, but this one feels new.
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“The burgers that are gaining a lot of attention are the ones that are super decadent,” he says. “As much as I also love those, we wanted to do something that was a little more clean. You know exactly what you’re eating.”
Special sauce and a sesame seed bun always have their place. It’s just nice to have a break right as fall kicks up the leaves. It’ll remind you of the ancient elements that go into a great sandwich: Fire, smoke and hunger.
Niwa’s lunch menu will also include french fries, a Panko-crusted chicken sandwich and sweet-tangy fries that blow fast-food joints clean out of the water.
Niwa Japanese BBQ, 2939 Main St. (Deep Ellum)