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Nine Years on, Nova Remains a Casual, Creative Oak Cliff Institution

The past few years of Dallas restaurant openings have been a story of renewed investment in neighborhoods.

Some restaurateurs still attempt massive concepts and glitz, but most diners are keener on charming little spots that serve affordable, adventurous food and build up crowds of loyal regulars. These new restaurants are less about dressed-up pretense and more about neighborhood comfort.

In other words, everybody’s finally catching up with Nova.

The diner on West Davis Street has been a bustling favorite of Oak Cliff residents for just over nine years. It’s so casual that it feels like a relief from the rest of the restaurant world. Honestly, isn’t it nice to eat at a place where the employees aren’t told to wear uniforms?

Eric Spigner
Eric Spigner
Alison McLean

But despite that laid-back attitude, chef Eric Spigner and his team are thinking hard about their food. Nova’s brunch is one of the city’s best, but things really get eccentric at dinnertime, when the globe-hopping menu attempts to dabble in a dozen food cultures, and somehow mostly pulls them off.

There can’t be too many restaurants anywhere that use jerk seasoning, bake pizzas and serve bowls of pho.

Even on one plate, the cultures can collide: My table recently got served koftas, the Middle Eastern meatballs, served with tzatziki — only the meatballs were made with goat and Caribbean flavorings, including crumbles of raisin ($17). The meat had been overworked to a thick firmness, but I liked the flavors jousting across the plate.

The bar of Nova, where many regulars sit, already has some decor for Halloween. Around Christmastime, it's wonderfully decorated with festive lights.
The bar of Nova, where many regulars sit, already has some decor for Halloween. Around Christmastime, it's wonderfully decorated with festive lights.
Alison McLean

Nova’s lamb loin leans mainly in the direction of the Muslim world, with dates interspersed among Spigner’s thick cuts of lamb and crumbled pistachios showered over the dish ($27). But then there’s a pool of a mushroom sauce so thick it’s almost a savory jelly, and a polenta cake seared using some kind of magic that turns the outsides crunchy without burning them. Even the leftover polenta was good, and leftover polenta is never good.

Diners who want to leave their passports behind have a clear house favorite: the chicken fried pork loin ($18). It’s blessed with sausage gravy, lumpy mashed potatoes and a thickly battered exterior that comes out deeply golden. There’s something about fried foods with that darker hue. It’s a better pork vehicle than the chop, which is cut up into medallions and overcooked over collard greens and grits ($27).

Angus brisket burger
Angus brisket burger
Alison McLean

If you’re going to swing by for Sunday brunch, make your rounds early. The dining room fills up quickly starting around noon, especially when musicians arrive or the Cowboys start playing. There’s high demand for the mimosas, which are approximately 10 parts Champagne to one part juice ($4.50). The fact that it’s not especially good juice — we suspect Ocean Spray — helps explain why the drinks are so heavy on booze.

First, grab some smoked salmon potato skins for the table ($10). Potato skins haven’t been trendy in about 15 years, and my tablemates stared at me and asked, “Potato skins?” But they’re still delicious, especially when they’re just barely crispy and topped with morsels of smoked salmon, dollops of horseradish-infused crème fraîche, scallions and bacon bits. Not “real” slices of bacon. Bacon bits. Only in Oak Cliff could the deli counter meet the loaded potato.

Nova’s shrimp and grits should be designated a tourist attraction ($15). Although Spigner is an expert on South Carolina food traditions, with a book to his credit, these shrimp and grits take Louisiana as a starting point. They’re slathered in a rich, brown gravy that, with the help of andouille sausage, tastes like it’s been simmering in a pot on a bayou for four or five hours, tended by someone’s grandmother. The portion has more shrimp than most people can eat. It’s marvelous.

Chilaquiles rojo
Chilaquiles rojo
Alison McLean

The chilaquiles are darn near perfect, too ($12). At first I was a little saddened by the bright red tomato salsa around the edges, which makes no attempt to be spicy. But under the flurry of tortilla strips, I kept finding more and more surprises: perfectly runny over-easy eggs, thick strips of bacon, slices of fiery jalapeño peppers, a bed of thick and hearty mashed red beans. Partied a little too hard last night? Nothing can top a breakfast of red beans and bacon.

Of course, reviewing the food at Nova is almost beside the point. Its attractions go beyond that: the cocktails which are often discounted to $6, the big bike racks in one of Dallas’ most bike-friendly neighborhoods, the service dogs lounging on the patio, the old-school diner decorations.

And then there’s Nova’s brand of service, which is casual and can border on chaotic, but endearing all the same. People who work at Nova seem to do so because they actually enjoy waiting tables. At least, that’s what I thought until my most recent visit, at which a series of awkward menu-description recitals descended on our table.

That same server then brought us a bowl of crab claws steamed a little too long in a rich broth of seafood stock, corn, cilantro and Spanish chorizo ($17). To help us share the appetizer, she gave us each a tiny plate. I have never eaten broth off a plate before, and hope not to do so in the future.

The restaurant revolution taking place around us in Dallas is a revolution of neighborhoods.

Our city’s chefs are staking themselves to their blocks, expressing their area’s identity, whether that identity is laid-back, scrappy or comfortably moneyed. Our chefs are expressing their ambitions differently, too, seeking a new balance between sophistication and comfort.

Pizzas are commonly ordered at this Oak Cliff diner.
Pizzas are commonly ordered at this Oak Cliff diner.
Alison McLean

In other words, everyone’s finally following Nova’s lead. Many of the newcomers are more consistent and more focused than this Oak Cliff spot’s round-the-world dining. Specializing has its perks. But if those new spots want to age as gracefully as Nova has, they would do well to remember that at its best, with a nonchalant attitude and good cheer, this diner remains a role model for the next generation.

Nova, 1417 W. Davis St. (Oak Cliff). 214-484-7123, novadallas.com. Open 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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