When Jon Alexis took over TJ's Seafood in 2009, the fish counter was still just a guppy of an enterprise. Sure, it had more than 20 years of fish peddling under its gills, but at that point it was still a small shop tucked into a North Dallas strip mall. Alexis' parents had run the business for 10 years, and before that the original owners worked there since opening the place in 1989. TJ's had become the go-to counter to get seafood in the Dallas area, was mobbed during crawfish season and had won awards from every local publication that handed out awards.
Still, Alexis saw potential after he took over, and in 2012, he opened a second location in Highland Park on Oak Lawn Avenue. This one had the same glass case packed with ice and a rainbow of raw fish, both whole and freshly fileted. There were shrimps, tins of crab meat and jars of luxurious caviar, and there were stacks of gnarled oysters like a shoal at low tide. But the big selling point of this newest location was the kitchen behind the seafood counter.
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While gazing at the bounty, a customer's nostrils were filled with the smell of sea bass searing away on the grill. Fish stocks simmered, filling the air with a briny perfume while tortillas were gently warmed for fish tacos. Now, customers could point out something behind the glass and have it turned into lunch just as soon as they could pick out their sides. The new TJ's extended an invitation to linger awhile and sit down with a drink. There was even a decent wine list.
What the place lacked, though, was service and an inviting space. You had to place your order at the counter, grab a table, and while a very professional member of the wait staff brought you your plate, a plastic card with a number marked your place. There was no bar at the Oak Lawn TJ's, so shooting the shit with a bartender while you slurped a dozen shells and sipped beer was impossible. The second TJ's, while charming, was more of a café that desperately wanted to be a restaurant, which brings us to the latest Alexis offering, this time at Preston Road and Royal Lane.
The latest TJ's opened earlier this year, when Alexis closed the original market and moved the operation to the Preston Royal Shopping Center, just as summer released its chokehold on the city. The market part still operates -- the case is located in the front of the restaurant, touting scallops the size of a toddler's fist and whole red snappers among other things -- but it now serves as a backdrop for a full-blown seafood restaurant. There's a bar at the back of the space, and servers shuttle around with trays of cocktails and steaming plates. There's a stand with a host to greet and seat you as you walk through the door. There's even a valet service. The setup works so well it's hard to picture customers walking in with Igloo coolers and a shopping list and it's not a stretch to see a few of them ditch their lists upon arrival and grab a seat at the bar instead.
You might too if you see a plate of scallops like those served here whisked by. They're expertly seared and paired with creamy grits with body and a bacon marmalade that's as sweet as it is fatty. There's a sturdy gumbo that you'd expect on any seafood restaurant within a reasonable radius of New Orleans, but there are other dishes that far eclipse what would be considered clichéd Southern seafood cooking.
Halibut ceviche with pickled onions and sweet potato chips is one. Corn kernels floating around in the mix are given some time in the sauté pan, which converts some of the sugars into a sticky, sweet flavor. The results balance out the lime juice used to cook the fish while lending texture and interest. Don't miss this one.
Don't miss the braised fish collar, either. When I ordered mine, two bones of a salmon landed on the table, the fins still attached and at attention like they might swim away. What you receive will depend on the availability of the kitchen, but as anyone who's ordered collar knows well, the results will have a soft, glistening texture that is unrivaled, no matter what the species.
Seared fish can be another highlight when the kitchen doesn't muck things up. A pristine piece of sea bass encrusted with pistachios was slightly overdone while a generous hunk of salmon was cooked till it was opaque, all the way though. Other kitchen errors include over-worked Maryland crab cakes with stringy meat instead of bulbous lumps and carelessly shucked oysters that arrived nearly mangled.
All of this is such a shame because the one thing that is consistent with every plate is impeccable freshness. TJ's benefits from an inventory that turns over incredibly quickly because it serves both the diners in the dining room and a steady base of customers looking to cook fish at home. The results are an inventory that never sits around and an endless stream of pristine freshness.
As long as it's not blasted in the furnace, fish this fresh still tastes delicious, which is probably why the most recent TJ's was filled, and sometimes packed, every night I dined there. One night I met a couple with guilt painted on their faces. They were gushing about the food on their plates, even pushing me to try it, but admitted that before TJ's came along, they used to be regular patrons of Fish City Grill across the street. They haven't been back too often these days.
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SHOW ME HOW
And if the kitchen can hone its execution problems, more customers should come back with increasing enthusiasm. It's the smallest of adjustments to pull salmon from the grill while its center still glistens. It's just a little extra care to make sure oysters stay under the broiler until the breading converts from a soft mush into a pleasing crunch that makes diners fight for the last shell on the table. TJ's is a fin's flick away from being an exceptional seafood restaurant, but it's not there yet.
6025 Royal Lane, No. 110, 214-691-2369, tjsseafood.com, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon- 9 p.m. Sunday, $$$
- Shrimp cocktail, $16
- Peruvian ceviche, $11
- Braised fish collar, $10
- Pesto grilled salmon, $19
- Seared scallops, $32