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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.