- Matthew Schniper
- Happy hour plates don’t lose much portion, but they drop heavily in price.
It’s a month after Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar’s Colorado Springs opening and the big bosses are still in town. I see chef and Founder Dave Query expediting the kitchen on a bustling Friday night, then Executive Chef Sheila Lucero working the line with their local chef de cuisine and sous chef and their team the following night. Despite having a multitude of other eateries to oversee, they are here to ensure Jax’s launch goes smoothly. And, because “We don’t see ourselves as a big fish in a small pond; we work twice as hard to gain our cred. We’ve got proving to do.”
That’s what Query told me just after the new year as we sat in Jax’s dining room, drinking coffee over teaser samples days before opening. And now he seems to be proving his point simply by sticking around and sweating alongside the new hires. Corporate-type chain spots will make a hubbub around opening with their top brass, who usually depart soon after, leaving the franchise in local managers’ hands for follow-through. But Jax isn’t part of a corporate chain; it’s part of a regional one, the Big Red F Restaurant Group. The 25-year-old, Boulder-based company also owns Lola Coastal Mexican, The Post Brewing Co., The West End Tavern, Zolo Southwestern Grill, and Centro Mexican Kitchen. Jax in particular grew out of its initial 1994 Boulder location into Fort Collins, Lodo Denver, Glendale and Kansas City. Query told me he’s been waiting for the right Springs location for 20 years, calling us the “natural next progression.” (Should we respond “Aw shucks,” oyster pun intended, or “About effin’ time, bro”?)
- Matthew Schniper
- People who don’t know if they love oysters yet should try some at Jax.
Our Jax keeps continuity with the other locations through its mirror menu and the same commitment to sustainably sourced seafood. They were the first Colorado restaurant certified by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (Lucero serves on their Blue Ribbon Task Force). While you wait for your food to arrive, you can read more on the back of the menu about Jax’s eco efforts and history. That includes a bit about their exclusive Chesapeake Bay Emersum Oysters, just one of six East and West Coast options on a daily-date-stamped oyster menu ranging from around $15 to $30 per half dozen (or $1.50 each for the Emersums during daily happy hours, which I’ll talk about below). Given the continued decline in marine life populations, restaurant efforts toward sustainability shouldn’t go unnoticed or unrewarded. In that lovely, first-world-problems-solutions kind of way, Jax will make you feel better about your pescatarian penchants.
In fact they’ll make you feel better about your day as a whole, as pretty much everything they serve that we try impresses in one way or another. I’ll also get to all that below. But first, know that you should call days ahead for a reservation if you want to eat at a regular dinner hour; they were five days out on those when we called, leaving us an option of 4 p.m. or 9 p.m. for a two-top. You can also try your luck walk-in at a small section of high tops at a counter just inside the entryway, in front of the host’s stand, where we post up on our Saturday night visit. Adjacent to the host stand, a raw bar greets guests with crab legs on ice behind glass, and it expands toward the kitchen, morphing halfway into an alcohol bar with beer taps, ample wines and a freshly designed cocktail menu by company beverage director Alan Henkin, with Denver cred to his name. The central bar, with seating all around it, splits the dining room into two sections against the north and south walls; it’s a tight, intimate space that makes a small crowd feel big, with sight-lines into the rear open kitchen that was many years ago the site of longtime former occupant Il Vicino’s brewery.
Location Details Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar
Oh, and there’s a snazzy fish tank whose neon coral glow and colorful fish will mesmerize you after a drink or two. Tables are covered in white butcher paper; crayons are set for drawing on the wall’s bricks; servers swim around in light blue button-downs over bluejeans and black shoes, complemented by black waist aprons. Along with a hint of brine in the air, the doodled walls lend a beach-side fish house vibe like the kind of bars where people draw on dollar bills and pin them to the ceiling so other drunk people can speculate how much money they’d make if they took them all down and pocketed them some night. Just inside the entryway, a small hand-lettered marquee sign, like the ones you’d see at a rural church, announces the day’s oyster selections. All this lends a casual versus fine-dining tone, even if the fares exceed $30, $40 and $50 at turns.
Enter Westword-awarded happy hours, where plates like the fruit de mer, a diverse, cold seafood salad here given a Mediterranean bent with a lively, spicy harissa chile, drop from $15 to $6, not losing much portion size according to our waitress. Magical Thai curry mussels (there’s also a chorizo or classic wine/garlic version) with a thick coconut broth heated by jalapeño coins with leek and cilantro herbaceousness drop from $17 to $9. A trio of springy, cakey, thin-crusted hush puppies dusted in cayenne-sugar and served with a bright mustard sauce set you back only $3. I actually don’t know why I’m telling you this because I’ll never be able to score a seat during happy hour again probably, so piss off, never mind, I’m lying to you right now, sorry I was drunk, please forget everything. You definitely won’t want to order the Best Rice Ever laced with tangy kimchi and bearing creamy avocado wedges and a fine furikake-topped fried egg. It’s poorly named, totally sucks, and oh man those poblano-cheddar grits on the shrimp and grits absolutely don’t work with the bacon-y sweet collard greens with caramelized onions and Carolina barbecue-style mustard sauce treatment and crispy browned, tail-on prawns that are salty-up-to-and-damn-near-over-the-line-of-piqued-senses but perfectly sweet balanced. Yeah, do yourself a favor and stick with Captain D’s and Red Lobster, folks. [Walks away whistling with fingers crossed behind back.]
- Matthew Schniper
- This seasonal scallop dish hooked us from the first gooey bite.
The Jax classic strawberry-infused vodka lemonade and cucumber-infused vodka-soda-lemonade are only $5 during happy hour too. They do not cloy, holding the line fine between sour and sweet. But we’d rather pay the regular $9 for a Bangkok Fizz, a sappier sip from pineapple syrup blended with house ginger beer, lime and truly spicy Thai chile-infused vodka; basically a hot mule that’ll make you a hot mess in a good way. Also don’t miss two excellent cocktails on the dessert list: the Black Manhattan and Reposado Bijou. The first subs in Averna amaro for the typical sweet vermouth, with bitters and Old Forester Rye, making for a complex clash between botanicals and rye spice. The second swaps in tequila for the classic gin, removing that botanical influence in favor of tequila’s earthy heat and desert essence, which blends beautifully with dry-sweet bianco vermouth and the floral nature of Green Chartreuse. Single-ingredient subs aren’t exactly wheel reinventions, but they show baseline cleverness and care.
Since I’m already out of order let’s just hit dessert now, first to agree with the quip at the top of the menu that “you’re never too full.” It’s a truism I’ve abided by since I was a child, telling my parents I was saving room for dessert, portioning my mains carefully. Here, blackberry caramel sauce and toasted coconut elevate a Key lime pie past most renditions, while someone finally shows the good sense to avoid a ubiquitous vanilla ice cream pairing with a warm chocolate cake in favor of a velvety orb of chocolate ice cream. The cake itself is indeed warm gooey goodness, muddy and dark-chocolate bitter, heightened by crunchy, toasty chocolate streusel and a whiskey toffee sauce that particularly plays well off the Black Manhattan.
Back to the main affair; at some point house sourdough arrives with salty whipped butter and I don’t want to fill up on it (dessert in mind and all, you know) but I can’t stop eating it all the same. On my second visit outside of happy hours we go for chargrilled oysters; they’re browned out with zesty Creole butter and topped in nutty Grana Padano cheese shavings — superb, and perfectly paired for our tastes with the Reposado Bijou, partly for its huge-zest orange aromatic. Our raw Emersum Oysters on the first visit were fabulous too; I confess I’m no oyster expert to wax poetic between the different bays’ merroir (if you will), but I can say they’re creamy as advertised, starting really clean and fresh up front and fading to a mild briney liquor finish; they seem like a great gateway oyster for people who don’t know they like oysters yet.
I saw that Jax has even been commended for its Niman Ranch burger so we opt to introduce some turf to our surf — during my preview sampling I’d tried the steak tartare as well and can vouch for it as kickass. Anyway the side slaw and fries here are fine and side B&B pickle garnish adds a nice acidic counterpoint to the richness of what we construct, with add-ons of fried egg and a fried oyster, something I can’t say I’ve added to a burger before. The bun’s charred around the rim and soft inside, and the oyster gets a little lost in the egg yolk and beef flavor so it’s more symbolic (like, “hey, we’re at Jax”) than poignant, but yeah it’s a damn good burger, perhaps best paired with a Howdy Western Pilsner from The Post Brewing Co., not just because it’s Big Red F-owned, i.e., fitting here, but because it’s crisp, a little bitter, decently hoppy, with faint hints of sweetgrass and coriander at a sessionable 4.5-percent ABV.
I’m sad to say that the only other plate I’m going to describe here is the New England Sea Scallops, off the seasonal menu for $34. Sad because there’s so much more I want to try that I feel like I’ve still only taken a glimpse at Jax. For a one-page menu, there’s a lot. I understand why someone locally on social media reported going to Jax three days out of five in a row. Forgive the stupid fish pun but she was truly hooked. We are too, after cutting into four plump, scantly seared, gooey jumbo scallops that we drag through a fennel soubise (onion sauce) with accenting bites of butternut squash gnocchi, candied almonds, pomegranate seeds and crispy kale. It tastes like the holidays (a little late now, I know), fall-friendly, with tart squirts from the pomegranate and the squash’s sweetness in particular playing with the scallops’ mild sweetness.
Have I psyched myself up with Jax, just because it’s coming from bigger, trendier markets with decades of proving itself? Because it’s leading with sustainability and it’s already hard to get a reservation and I can tell the owners give a shit? Self-check: I don’t think so. Instead, I think the Springs has just been one-upped; thrown a gauntlet; presented a standard of seafood excellence — ultimately, enriched as a scene. Go suck down an oyster or six and tell me I’m wrong. I won’t see you at happy hour but maybe I’ll make it to weekend brunch, ‘cuz that’s just one more thing at Jax I want to try. Even after the big bosses pull up anchor and sail through less frequently, I believe we can count on calm, consistent waters from this fish house.