AmberJax Goes Out to Sea, But No Deeper

Smoked salmon
Catherine Downes

In some ways, it's a wonder how shrimp cocktail ever came off so regal. The most basic of restaurant dishes calls for boiled and peeled shrimp, presented in stemware like a martini with monster arms and paired with ketchup flavored so brazenly with horseradish it obliterates the delicate flavor of the crustaceans. That sharp-tasting Heinz is just one reason many food writers, including James Beard, have expressed disdain for the dish. Beard suggested vinaigrette, herbed mayonnaise, anything as an alternative. And yet shrimp cocktail was the most popular first course on menus across the country for decades.

While shrimp cocktail eventually receded to the menus of seafood restaurants and steakhouses almost exclusively, it still maintains an elevated status in our perception. When an order hits the table, it is accompanied by the brassy horns of an audio-hallucinatory fanfare. Follow shrimp cocktail with perfectly seared New York strip steak and a side of steamed broccoli and you've got yourself a special-occasion meal. Have a shrimp cocktail with a boozy cocktail by yourself at the bar and you're living a decadent dream. As mundane as shrimp cocktail can be, it still feels special.

Except at AmberJax in Trinity Groves, where instead of trumpets your shrimp cocktail arrives accompanied by imaginary kazoos. The shrimp are plated in a neat row on a bed of lettuce, with lemon wedges and the requisite tomato-based palate blaster. During one of my visits, they were overcooked and peeled hastily so they had jagged edges and looked a little mangled. It's wasn't the most majestic of starts for this bustling seafood restaurant.

AmberJax opened at the end of 2013, on the backside of Trinity Groves' main restaurant building. The long, slender dining room runs parallel to massive doors and windows that let the light and a nice breeze in, when one's blowing. With lights that hang like street lamps, just enough neon signs and chalkboard menus that overtake the entire wall, they just about pull off the seaside seafood restaurant from your annual summer vacation. All that's missing is a sizable bar for sipping beer and slurping oysters when you're eating alone. (A tiny bar with just a handful of stools is tucked in the front corner.)

Tuck your head through the swinging doors and you'll find Larry Williams in charge of the kitchen. His wife and their children handle the dining room. Williams previously ran the kitchen at Rex's Seafood on Lovers Lane, where he served a similar menu of freshly shucked oysters, sautéed fish and other carefully handled sea creatures in a similarly casual dining room.

Just like at Rex's, there is a seafood counter here, up front near the bar. Fog up the glass with your face and come nose to nose with crabcakes, whole fish fillets, and shrimp so big they won't fit in your palm. Crawfish are steamed and ready to go, while in season, and a number of fish stocks and stews are available to take home.

And you will want to take home some of that gumbo after you have a cup of it here. The soup is deep and richly colored like river silt, and suspends big stringy hunks of pork and sausage. Hit it with a little hot sauce if you're craving heat but this bowl of soup doesn't need a thing other than a really big spoon.

There's more that hails from New Orleans, like the boudin, which is grilled until it's charred and served on a redundant bed of rice. It's saffron rice, though, the color of buttercups, filling your nostrils with a flowery aroma, which works nicely with the darker, more menacing but mild flavors of liver and pork.

But while the Creole crabcakes tout a similar Louisiana lineage, no self-respecting seafood lover could call what's served at AmberJax "lump crabcakes." The crabmeat may have once been lump, the prized knobs of protein from the back knuckles of a crab, but now they're torn to tiny strands and subdued by a heavy binder that eats more like a soft brownie than a delicate parcel of seafood.

Other dishes are more easily saved. There's good smoked salmon, and it's plated like lox, with capers, minced onion, egg and crème frîache laced with dill. The plate would be a star if it weren't served with slices of cheap baguette without any structure. A trio of seafood dips is served with the same bread and it's a struggle to spread much of anything before the bread crumbles apart.

Oysters could get a similar boost if they were more carefully shucked and better presented. There are plenty of restaurants that will charge you $3 a shell for Blue Points, but that's hardly a bargain, and they should be opened carefully, without being mangled with an oyster knife.

Williams gets back into his wheelhouse with the fish specials chalked on the board. Each fish is hit cautiously with a salty seasoning, seared until it just starts to flake, and draped in a butter or other casual sauce. It's a simple, homey presentation that shows off great ingredients at their finest and comes with two sides. One of them should be the red beans and rice, which are so thick you could almost sculpt them and painfully good.

The fish specials hover around $30, which helps explain why the dishes taste so fresh — fresh, high-quality fish is expensive — but you might start to wonder why your bill creeps up into three figures for two people for what is essentially very casual cooking.

The Jackson is almost maddening at $28. The fried seafood basket contains a few oysters, a few shrimp and a piece of catfish, and it's executed no better than the rest of the bottom-of-the-bucket seafood restaurants around Dallas. The undercooked french fries could use a second look, too.

Still, this dining room is packed more often than not. An indoor/outdoor patio was recently added, and diners spilled right over into the new space. It's funny that a town known for its lust for a steak and two sides would embrace seared grouper and spinach sautéed until it barely wilts so readily. But they're here buying it hook, line and all the way down to the pecan pie, which costs $10 if you want it served with praline ice cream.

If that doesn't sound steep to you and you order the right dishes, you'll likely have a great time here. But if you've had that moment of awakening when you look down at a seafood cocktail and see a naked emperor with his shrimp flapping in the breeze, there's a good chance your eyes will roll.

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