When the Boys Came Home

Jax Cafe
1928 University Ave. NE, Mpls.; (612) 789-7297
Hours: lunch Monday-Saturday 11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m.; dinner Monday-Saturday 3:00-10:00 p.m. (Friday and Saturday till 11:00), Sunday 3:30-9:00 p.m.; brunch buffet Sunday 10:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. (last seating 1:30 p.m.)

Gazing into the dark, shallow water, I watch the midnight-colored fish, the slow and the quick, the adventuresome and the stealthy, and I make the life-and-death decision. Exactly how hungry am I? Eight-inch hungry, or ten-inch hungry? Are the slow trout exhausted, or just lazy? Are the ones out in the open water pleading to be done with life?

Granted, in the Jax Cafe's backyard trout stream, a miniature river that threads between flagstones and runs from picturesque waterfall to cutesy water wheel, life-and-death decisions are moot in the long run: Every one of these rainbow beauties is destined for a big, oval plate beside potato and vegetable. So I hold my breath, plunge the net after a lazy fish in open water, and scoop. As the trout thrashes, I burst out laughing with surprise at how quickly internal debates become meaningless. My waitress clicks a Polaroid, takes the fish from me, and whisks it away to the kitchen.

Craig Lassig

Location Info

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Jax Cafe

1928 University Ave. NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Northeast Minneapolis

I'm left out on the patio with my friends, and I tell them that I feel like a polar bear, triumphant at the hole in the ice. They scoff at my city-slicker, never-caught-a-fish-before naiveté, so we head back into the classy, Truman-era dining room, regroup around the cozy pink-cloth-draped tables, and sip expertly poured Manhattans. Soon my prey arrives: Now he's steel-and-sand-colored, pan-sautéed, tender, delicious. One more rainbow trout entered into the ledgers of history.

History isn't only for fish at Jax--just ask Bill Kozlak Sr., age 63, current patriarch of the big brick building on University. There's family history here: Kozlak's grandfather built the place in 1910 as a combination dance hall, furniture store, hardware store, and mortuary. ("Don't ask me why," Kozlak says, "but furniture and mortuaries went hand in hand in the old days.") Now Bill Sr.'s son Bill Jr. is poised to take over the business. There are other families' personal histories: Thousands of weddings have taken place in the banquet space upstairs, and Jax has seen 70th anniversaries celebrated on the same floor the bride and groom first danced on. There's Minneapolis dining history: Jax was granted the city's second liquor license in town after Prohibition ended in 1933, and Kozlak says the outdoor patio--put in circa 1954--was the first in town. And, of course, there's political history. Kozlak's father, Joseph, was a member of first the state House and then the Senate in the Thirties, a friend of Gov. Floyd B. Olsen, and a key figure in the founding generation of the DFL. "We had lots and lots of political rallies up there" in the dance hall, remembers Kozlak. "They'd invite everybody to come, telling them the beer was free. But when the crowd got here, they found a politician standing on the keg, and the keg wasn't opened until the politician had said what he wanted to say and climbed down. That sure kept everybody's attention."

Then the war came to Northeast. "Those were the days when every window around here had flags in the front window," Kozlak recalls, "and there were stars on the flag that showed how many children you had in the service. Nearly everybody had two or three stars, but some had four or five, and if your kids got killed in combat you turned those stars to gold stars. When the servicemen started coming home, the economy heated up, and Jax really started to grow. After the war was the first time the neighborhood really came out of the Depression." In 1951 Jax underwent a major makeover, and in 1958 the dance hall was renovated; virtually every interior or architectural detail about the place has been preserved intact since then.

So am I saying that Jax is essentially a period room with food and drink, perfectly showcasing postwar prosperity? Yes, yes, I am. And I'm delighted with the time travel, even if the fare isn't as arugula-pesto-fancy as 1999 generally demands.

The best items on Jax's menu are the strictly cook-and-serve dishes, like the broiled walleye ($18.95) or my rainbow trout--an excellent fish, and an unforgettable experience. The trout stream is stocked from April to October, and if you're not into catching your own, a chef will snare the fish for you. It's available pan-fried--an excellent, campfire-plain presentation that costs $18.95--as well as in one of a variety of preparations that change with the seasons, such as a mustard-crusted trout on whipped potatoes ($21.95). All dinners at Jax come complete with a first-course choice of soup or salad, and most include a choice of potato and the vegetable of the day.

I tried the stuffed pork chop, which is Jax's special anniversary dinner; for the remainder of 1999, $19.95 gets you a beer or glass of wine, soup, salad, the pork chop with garlic mashed potatoes, vegetables, and a giant portion of very tasty, buttery, hot and steamy bread pudding. The chop itself was nothing spectacular; it tasted like wedding food, dense and rich and inoffensive. But a rural-Wisconsin-raised friend at my table swore it was the only restaurant food available in the metro area that wouldn't scare her grandparents to death. The prime-rib dinner ($20.95) was tender, served at the proper temperature, and otherwise unremarkable.

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