Cafe Society

Jax Fish House is a keeper

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.

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.

And eat.

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan