The charcoal lights around 10 p.m. Just off Main Street, on an open-air patio that borders Monkey King Noodle Co., alongside thumping bars and piles of fallen leaves, a keyboard-sized grill glows lava-orange. Steam dances out, nearly spelling out the words in vapor that you’re imagining when you whiff the aromas: garlic, soy, onion. In the grill’s tiny belly is the nest of hot coals.
The columns of charcoal, a hard oak, are bright hot and fantastically amber, like dragon eggs. Skewers lined with chicken and sauce-painted shrimp rest just barely over the fire, sizzling and crackling loud enough to hear from the street.
This is Niwa Japanese BBQ’s tiny powerhouse: a street-side robatayaki grill, open until 2:30 a.m. on weekends, that’s serving quick, no-frills, inexpensive street food unlike anything else you’ll find in the city.
Chef and owner Jimmy Niwa’s background is robatayaki, which means “fireside cooking.” He grew up in Los Angeles, working all over, went to culinary school and got jobs in every corner of the restaurant industry. He's consulted for handfuls of restaurants and landed in Deep Ellum. The atmosphere in the nightlife neighborhood was the draw. Deep Ellum was a perfect place to land a yakitori (chicken over coals) and robatayaki grill.
“The thing that we wanted to do was create just to create good food first and foremost,” Niwa says. “There’s a lot of restaurants out here that have excellent service and good food, but we didn’t want to make it about a dress code. It’s about good food, simply.”
There’s something nearly magical about open-fire street food. An ageless sense of happiness overwhelms you when the rush of a cool breeze finds you passing meat skewered on sticks while both your feet are planted on the sidewalk. It comes from the feeling of pitching the rule book into the trash. Forget the structure and stuffiness of a sit-down restaurant. When food is passed to you by hand, seconds after it fire touches it, it always tastes better.
The streets of Deep Ellum are perfect for and in sore need of this genre of food. While other cities excel at dirty water hot dogs and beer-soaked sausages, Dallas is street food parched. There’s only so much of it you’ll find in or around downtown Dallas, and it’s a beautiful thing when it emerges — as is the case with Junction's new late-night bao cart.
Niwa’s menu is simple: chicken with charred green onion, swaddled in a light, lip-smacking good soy sauce. Shrimps are cooked with the exactitude of a NASA mission, painted with a sticky, spicy miso and nutty sesame sauce. I order a few of each, pass them around to friends, and we devour them, steam still pouring off each skewer.
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Niwa's outdoor grill had a soft opening a few weeks ago, then disappeared quickly to get the proper city approvals. It will launch again at 10 p.m. Friday and run street-side until 2:30 a.m. Who wouldn’t love grill-charred shrimps, spicy-sweet, at 2 a.m.? Niwa plans to mix up the food — sometimes beef, sometimes vegetables, maybe a seafood option every now and then — but it’ll always be simple and unpretentious.
“The locals in Deep Ellum aren’t caring so much about how the space looks or fine dining service,” Niwa says casually. It's a welcome addition to the street.
The robatayaki chef lines up more skewers over the hot coals, and they start to sizzle. It’s nearing midnight. The aromas — the green onions biting over the fire — are incredible, and we consider ordering a few more for the walk home.
Niwa Japanese BBQ, 2939 Main St.