Once again, I find myself wishing I were a big fat man, one of those renowned, infamous gastronomes of old. I wish I were James Beard, who could put away a dozen oysters, a pound of Gulf shrimp, a whole chicken and maybe a few of its eggs, scrambled, as an appetizer. I wish I were Escoffier, who would sometimes serve a crown roast to his famous guests as a first course. I wish I were Johnny Apple of the New York Times, who was quite capable of "eating lunch at a three-star restaurant in the French countryside and, after an interval of only three hours, dinner at a brasserie in Lyon, narrating each dish as it came," according to Adam Nagourney, a friend and fellow traveler. And those were no small dinners, either. Two hours, three, with multiple courses and flights of wine — always the best of any house.
While I have known meals that lasted three, four and five hours and gone into extra innings with courses ten through fourteen, I have almost always staggered away from the table groaning, wanting to die — not expectantly looking forward to three hours hence when my body, having finished its work of digestion, will have me ready once more for another gigot of lamb, a whole roasted fish stuffed with mushrooms, a bucket of Puligny-Montrachet.
So it's not every restaurant that makes this desire for epic girth and appetite come over me. There are only a few — a very few these days. Jax Fish House in LoDo is on the top of my short list. It's been my guilty pleasure for years.
Jax Fish House
1539 17th Street
Hours: 4 p.m.-close daily
Jax Fish HouseOysters market
Cornmeal fried oysters $14
Crab cakes $13
Frog legs $12
Lobster roll $18
Why guilty? Because when I cruise downtown, there's always some new place, some hot chef whose fricassee of tongue sausage in crankcase oil or suffocated leeches in parsnip relish I ought to be trying. But instead, I'll often swing into Jax with a fistful of cash and eat a half-dozen oysters, so fresh that you can see the little suckers flex when you dress them with lemon juice. I'll order a bowl of PEI mussels in lemongrass broth, constantly bother the servers for more bread and appreciate it when they take my comfort and my demands as a challenge rather than an affront. When Jax was still serving brunch, I'd sometimes roll in late for truffled deviled eggs (which Jax had before everyone else started offering them) and a couple of beers and maybe a nice crab cocktail.
I've been here on nights when Jax is standing room only and three-deep at the bar, nights when I have to order over the top of the cold cases set near the door, full of fresh oysters, king crab and lobsters just off the plane. I've burned my tongue on shooters swimming in the house's five-pepper vodka (infused on the premises) and relaxed, either very early or very late, when the place has actually been quiet enough to hear the news or the game on the TVs above the bar.
There are newer, hipper restaurants, sure. There are restaurants with stranger histories or more unusual selections on their board. But still, Jax has become a kind of comfort to me — the brick walls and pictures of the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, the crayons on every table with their paper covers, and the roadhouse classic rock (Jax plays more Led Zeppelin than any other restaurant in the world, hands down) pumping from hidden speakers all acting like a kind of coded message to my body to relax, leave the other restaurants for other nights and just be.
Because in addition to being my occasional retreat, the place I go when I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be, Jax is a place that makes me want to be enormous, ravenous and bottomless. Here, I can never eat enough.
One evening I manage to get a table in Jax's cramped, comfortable dining room, and contemplate everything I can eat. Grilled oysters, California-style, with tomatillo, jalapeño and lime mignonette are passed over for the possibility of cornmeal fried oysters with sour buttermilk dressing, which in turn are dismissed because tonight I feel as though I can skip the oysters, maybe, and eat shrimp: by the pound, peel-and-eat, with horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce and that faint tang of the sea.
But I am conserving digestive real estate here, and though I want the shrimp so bad I can almost taste them, I order crab cakes instead, because Jax makes some of the best crab cakes around: big ones, flat-grilled, served with a horseradish Louis sauce and a blob of citrus jelly. I know that when I ache for boiled shrimp, what I'm really desiring is that kick of horseradish in the cocktail sauce, so the crab cakes kill two birds with one stone, with my horseradish fix pooled up beneath two fat cakes of lump crab, spritzed lemon and just a hint of roasted pepper. Beautiful.
My entree choice is more complicated. Damnably so, with the new fall menu in effect and all the efforts of executive chef Sheila Lucero seemingly turned exclusively to tempting me into exploding myself right in the dining room. Chicken-fried frog legs? I could eat those all night. Mississippi catfish, fried and served with a Yukon Gold gratin and candied pork belly? Pork belly is like crack to me. Candied pork belly is like candied crack — crack dipped in caramel and rolled in powdered sugar. There are filets of steelhead, grilled and served over chanterelle mushrooms with handmade gnocchi — which sounds like something I would've made for myself back in the day, back when I still had to go out of my way to find that perfect balance of fish and starch and mushrooms that the French have been serving for centuries. There's also a pork chop, maple-glazed and served with goat-cheese mashed potatoes, plum jam and golden raisins. Reading the menu description makes me drool; I wish I'd been smart enough to come up with that kind of combination when I was cooking. I love being in the house of someone smarter than me, more broadly engaged than I ever was with the food shed and flavors of passing seasons.
Lucero is one of those people, Jax one of those houses.
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But pig is not fish. I get that. And tonight I've come for seafood, which Jax has been known for since 1996. That's when Dave Query (who already had Zolo and the original Jax, both in Boulder) took over the old home of the Terminal Bar — a classic end-of-the-line joint so grim that it actually figured prominently in a Tom Waits song on Nighthawks at the Diner — and threw over the crud and watery light in favor of fish and yuppies. Sad, but true. No one at the Terminal would have paid extortion-level prices for Wellfleets and lobster. In fact, no one in the entire neighborhood around the Terminal would have paid those prices. But the neighborhood was rapidly changing, and for more than a decade now, Jax has been an anchor of the gentrified LoDo — a dependable, often excellent place for fish and booze and booze and fish and booze.
So finally, I order the scallops. When they arrive, they are perfect — huge and soft, seared golden at the flat ends, speckled with black pepper, milky white and tender within. The kitchen has topped them with a sun-dried tomato gremolata that I could live without (it's lazy: julienned sun-drieds with lemon zest piled dry like a crown atop the huge scallops), but it has also based the dish around a roasted-bone-marrow-and-potato risotto that's nothing like I'd expected it to be. It's not really a risotto, not really a marrow-mounted sauce, but rather like the best, most luxurious homefries in the world, served in a pure-white cheese-and-marrow béchamel. Seafood and potatoes make a great, comforting combination — something rough and rustic about the mixing of flavors and textures bypasses all filters of the brain and palate and grabs right at my heart, makes me want to wear a rolled-neck Hemingway sweater all day and move to the Maritimes. It is an unbelievably delicious plate.
I've long believed that Jax is as good as it is because of its focus. For a dozen years, it's concentrated on seafood, changing menus with the seasons, changing chefs occasionally, changing kitchen crews and price structures (ranging from expensive to really fucking expensive) but always, always focusing on the swift and intelligent repurposing of sea creatures into my dinner. But then I have to go and screw with this theory when I drop in a few nights later for lobster (Maine lobster, flown in daily) and ask for a cheeseburger instead. I have no idea what's come over me, what strange path of appetite I'm following — ordering a cheeseburger in a fish restaurant — but come to find out, Jax does a damn fine burger. Colorado beef grilled up a perfect mid-rare, topped with white cheddar, on a soft, grilled brioche roll and sided by hand-cut fries. A great seafood restaurant has no business making such a great burger; it seems wrong, almost greedy. But there it is. And I still get my lobster, to go, as a house lobster roll — which isn't a lobster roll at all, but a lobster salad sandwich on a hamburger bun. Despite this fact and some diced celery, it's still a very good sandwich.
I wish I were a fat man. I wish I were vast, with the appetite to match. I wish that, on any given night, I could belly up to the raw bar at Jax in a disreputable seersucker suit and sauce-stained tie, doff my enormous hat and eat the place clean out of the day's catch, the day's shipment of all things that squirm, hop or swim. I wish I could do that, but I can't. So I will just have to keep coming hungry and leaving stuffed, disappointed only in all the things that I'm not able to eat this time and anxious for any excuse to return.