Jake Hunkay, Lee Sandoval, Jared Lovenduski and Dana Faulk Query prepare to open for happy hour.

Jax is committed to super freshness, sustainability, service and fun

By Kate Jonuska | Photos by Phil Mumford

The coasts have it easy, says Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar owner Dave Query. A restaurant in New York City can serve Hawaiian seafood, an L.A. eatery may offer Nantucket scallops, and diners assume they’re getting the best—even though the distance from boat to plate is actually much shorter when that plate is in “coastless” Boulder, Colo.

“Because [coastal cities] are in close proximity to the water, it’s assumed the fish is good,” says Query, who opened Jax on Pearl Street in 1994. “We, on the other hand, set the bar really high. We have to prove it.” The seafood has to be unquestionably excellent every time, for every customer, and the decades of names signed proudly on the eatery’s brick walls are proof that it’s hit the mark thousands of times for thousands of customers.

That signature graffiti is the first indicator of the restaurant’s playful atmosphere. A school of stained-glass fish swims above the dining room, crayons are available at every paper-covered table, and octopus sconces guard the 15-seat bar. It’s a place where $1.25/each happy-hour oysters and draft beers sit on the menu alongside an impressive wine list and the world’s best caviars for $21-$70/half ounce.

Jax-01093“We want people to come in and feel comfortable, to be themselves and be relaxed, whether they’re in shorts and flip-flops or dressed up for the opera,” says general manager Lee Sandoval. “Any personality type or budget can find something they’re going to enjoy on our menu, and all of them are going to have the best service, the best quality and the freshest product.”

Not only the freshest, but also traceable, meaning that your server likely knows the name of the fishing vessel that pulled the Australian sea bass for your entrée out of the water. In that delicious dish ($28), the fresh sea bass tastes sweet and clean atop a bed of squash purée, crispy polenta, wild mushrooms, pancetta and pickled chard stems. Those pickled stems—which are unexpectedly delicious—are also as fresh as possible, thanks to relationships with local growers like Red Wagon Farms and Isabelle Farm.

Equally important to being fresh, though, all of Jax’s seafood is environmentally responsible and sustainable. In fact, the restaurant was the first in Colorado to earn certification by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, and is among only a handful of inland restaurants to have done so. The program closely monitors fishing and fish-farming operations around the world for sustainability, ranking species as either a best choice, a good alternative or a product to avoid.

“It’s challenging sometimes, because there are lot of tasty fish out there that we can’t feel good about serving and couldn’t partner with Monterey if we did,” says Alex Krill, chef de cuisine. “But it’s also fun. Anyone can serve tuna and salmon all day long, but finding those rare fish that are super sustainable that no one knows about—now, that’s great.”

Upholding the Delicate Balance

Seared sea scallops with buttermilk whipped potatoes, asparagus, morel mushrooms and pea mousse
Seared sea scallops with buttermilk whipped potatoes, asparagus, morel mushrooms and pea mousse

For instance, ahi tuna is famously served raw or near-raw, but it’s not the most sustainable choice. Chef Krill instead serves a “best choice” albacore tuna crudo ($15) with tobiko roe, shiso vinaigrette and spicy Japanese Kewpie mayo that will change your perception of albacore as a fish in a can into a fish of mouth-melting, upscale delicacy. The bonus is that the choice of fish upholds the delicate balance of our marine ecosystems.

Similarly, Jax’s daily blue-plate specials have been customer favorites for 20 years, with cioppino on Sundays, “Old School” tuna on Mondays and bluenose sea bass on Tuesdays. So when Krill changed the staple bluenose special into the “Newnose,” you can trust he had very good reasons.

“The bluenose is from Australia and New Zealand, and it’s incredibly overfished,” says Krill. “We traded that for a barramundi [sea bass], which is a farm-raised and sustainable fish, and of course, we have to explain why. Then that becomes a great conversation between the guest and the server about the importance of sustainability.”

Environmental concerns never eclipse taste at Jax, where the menu is creative and international. Try a taste of Italy with a unique n’duja spreadable sausage served on toast alongside smoky grilled octopus and celery salad ($15), or dabble in Thai flavors with the steamed mussels ($12), whose green-curry broth is as bright and vibrant in flavor as in color.

For those wishing to eat from the land rather than the sea, the Jax burger ($15) with all-natural Niman Ranch beef and bacon is the ticket. Two-time winner of Best Burger from Westword—a big deal for a seafood restaurant—it’s excellent alone, though seafood lovers can add a fried oyster on top for $3, which Chef Krill says “is better than any cheese.”

“With both the food menu and the bar program, we hold ourselves to very high standards,” says bar manager Devlin Devore Kaplan. “If we wouldn’t serve it to our mom, we wouldn’t serve it to a customer, and there’s a lot of pride for me in that.”

Jake Hunkay, Lee Sandoval, Jared Lovenduski and Dana Faulk Query prepare to open for happy hour.
Jake Hunkay, Lee Sandoval, Jared Lovenduski and Dana Faulk Query prepare to open for happy hour.

She also takes a lot of pride in crafting the bar menu, which naturally gravitates toward wines and Martinis but also branches out into cocktails, both classic and creative. “Those cocktails are very much in line with the wine and Martini program, because we use a lot of vermouths and bitters, all pretty aromatic and very refreshing,” she explains, adding that pairing drinks with different varieties of oysters is always fun. “The most interesting pairing I’ve done is probably Scotch with oysters. It sounds weird, but something about the brininess and minerality with the peatiness of Scotch was really great.”

Happy hour (4-6 p.m. daily) is a great time to try those cocktails at a discount, as well as receive bargain prices on beers and some of Jax’s favorite food, like the gumbo with andouille, crawfish and shredded chicken for only $4. Plus, the most popular dish in the house—the calamari—is only $7, and is served with a super-spicy mango-chile rojo and a refreshing lime aioli.

“Boulder trusts us, I feel,” Krill says. “They trust how we feel about sustainability. They like that we have healthy and gluten-free options, which is a lot of the menu. They trust our food is going to be good, and our oysters the freshest they can get.”

And it’s that trust owner Dave Query knows will keep Jax successful in Boulder for at least two more decades. He’ll just have to find a place on the colorful wall where those future happy customers can sign.

Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar (303-444-1811, www.jaxboulder.com) is located at 928 Pearl St. and opens daily at 4 p.m.

By Kate Jonuska | Photos by Phil Mumford

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