First Look

Grill It Yourself at Deep Ellum's Excellent New Concept, Niwa Japanese BBQ

Though it rests in rather spartan digs on the outermost stretches of what all the trendy foot traffic considers Deep Ellum proper, Jimmy Niwa's new yakiniku spot across Main Street from All Good Cafe is the ultra-cool epitome of everything the neighborhood is becoming.

A white pine door divorces the out from the in, a portal between the nondescript tan brick building butting up against Monkey King Noodle Co. on one side and the Japanese barbecue nirvana inside. The signage outside is at knee-level, and an empty sign box on top of the entryway makes passersby wonder if the place is even open.

Niwa is, in fact, open and has been since late November, though lunch service won't begin until sometime after the New Year, as the menu is still coming together.

Cross over the threshold and Niwa's sleek and understated seductive interior tells you that you've arrived. If the feeling doesn't strike you immediately, it will when you lay your first meat or veggie gently on the self-serve Shinpo down-draft grill sunk into the center of your table. The steady hiss is a confirming whisper. Yeah, you're doing it right, in every sense of the phrase.

Yakiniku, literally translated, means grilled meat. So even if you're learning new words all evening on your first visit to Niwa, it's a simple concept. You're in no danger of burning the place down.

It's difficult to hear "Japanese barbecue, you know, the one with the grill right there on your table," without envisioning the highest dinner tab you've paid all month. And there are probably even those who bristle at an uber-chic fine dining takeover in what used to be Big D's grunge capital.

But Niwa's subtlety, substance and utter disdain for bombast are what makes it feel like a good fit for the neighborhood, even if you do ascribe to such cynicism born out of misguided nostalgia. Sure, it's easy to run up quite a healthy dinner bill, especially if the wagyu steak has piqued your curiosity. Then again, if wagyu piques your curiosity enough to order the buttery smooth bites of steak, you probably know what you're getting yourself into.

On a recent visit, a server described a $40 wagyu off-menu option, while the three-piece option we settled on billed at $22. It included a 1.5 oz. strip of Texas wagyu from A Bar N Ranch, where Black Angus/wagyu cross cattle roam on land in both Celina and Sherman, along with the really real deal: 1.5 oz. bits of both A-5 chuck flap and strip loin from Miyazaki, Japan.

The first time you had expensive sushi doesn't even compare to the way this miracle meat melts on your tongue after even the shortest of stints on the grill.

The a la carte ordering system yakiniku makes sharing the burden with a group a popular cost saving option, and it also means the whole experience is as transparent as dining out gets. The waitstaff isn't going to upsell you, but their recommendations and tips along the way are spot-on every time.

If you can avoid going 0-to-100 like you're drag racing your lunch, there are delicious ways to get out of Niwa with only a modest dent in the wallet. Go for the shareable and perfectly panko-fried tonkatsu ($12) pork cutlet and one veggie to skate away for under $20.

If you're a party of two, go for a signature cocktail instead of an appetizer. The black walnut classic ($12) is made with Old Overholt rye with enough citrus to make things very interesting. Then make the shishito ($5) non-negotiable, grab one more veggie and tackle the hanger steak ($8) and pork belly ($7) as a team. That's drinks and dinner for two in the new yuppified Deep Ellum for just over $50.

A meal at a Niwa is everything you want and nothing you don't, every time. That's not hyperbole. Your unique yakiniku agenda is the only one that matters here.

With Niwa anchoring the concept in Deep Ellum, Japanese barbecue is going to have its day in the Dallas sun.

Niwa Japanese BBQ, 2939 Main St.
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Matt Martinez is a DFW-lifer who handles the Observer's editorial social media channels when he's not waxing cynical in our news, food and music verticals. Rest assured, he hates your favorite team. Matt studied journalism at the University of Texas and then again, for some reason, at UNT. He has written for the Austin Chronicle, the Denton Record-Chronicle and currently writes sports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Contact: Matthew Martinez