Jax Cafe: A Nordeast institution
"I think you'll have a better shot on the other side," the manager coached, pointing across the stream and passing me a long-handled net. "They like to hide under the water wheel." And that's how I found myself in Jax's backyard patio, leaping across to the flagstone-lined stream's opposite bank, crouching in some bushes, and peering into the inky water. A couple of shadowy trout darted out from under the churning wheel. I plunged my net in after them, feeling the heady rush of the hunt—and maybe a little too old for all this. But where else could a grownup catch her own dinner in the middle of northeast Minneapolis?
Even in such contrived circumstances, I didn't fare so well as a hunter-gatherer. First, the net got stuck under the wheel. Then, it took the help of two people—my dad and then our waitress—to get the net unstuck before the manager finally scooped up my supper. The waitress snapped a photo of me, my parents, and the still-thrashing fish.
Jax Cafe has been preserving memories since 1933, and after 75 years in business it's believed to be the longest-running family-owned restaurant in the state—or at least the most notable one. When Prohibition ended, Jax Bar and Cafe acquired the city's second liquor license and opened in the space where the restaurant's main bar is today. Over the years, the business passed through three more generations and expanded to become a multistory complex with several dining and banquet rooms lavishly appointed with patterned carpets and stained-glass windows.
Jax Cafe was the first local restaurant, its owners say, to keep live lobsters in saltwater tanks, to open an outdoor patio, and to send buses to Minnesota Gopher games. Bill Kozlak Jr., who took over the business from his parents in 2001, says that on game days in the 1950s, Jax would serve 600 people for lunch and then send 21 buses to an afternoon game. When the buses returned, Jax would already be filling with wedding guests, so Bill Sr. would get on the phone and help the football fans make dinner reservations at other neighborhood restaurants. In its heyday, Jax was the clubhouse of northeast Minneapolis's burgeoning business class. A dinner reservation—for steak and a Golden Cadillac—meant you were a hard-working fellow who had made something of himself.
In 75 years—"That's 400 in restaurant years," Kozlak jokes—the place has hosted celebrations for all sorts of rites of passage, from prom dates to weddings, including Kozlak's own (he met his wife when she worked at Jax as a server). "My dad says that sometimes he'll be shaking hands with a successful businessman and it'll seem like just yesterday he was putting him in a highchair," Kozlak says. One generation might be celebrating its anniversary at Jax, the second its wedding, and the third its post-baptism luncheon.
How old is Jax? Consider this: When the place first opened, a glass of buttermilk cost a nickel; fresh Wisconsin frog legs were $1.50; and a tenderloin steak with salad, beverage, toast, and choice of potato set you back a buck sixty-five. The cocktail list included Sazaracs and Singapore Slings.
Yet, in many ways, Jax's patio still feels like it probably did decades ago: a leafy haven for celebrating life's milestones and enjoying its successes. When I was there a few weeks ago, the table next to me had assembled for some sort of birthday or retirement party. The guest of honor, who wore a U of M baseball cap (one of his gifts), was approached by an acquaintance dressed in sockless penny loafers and a Hawaiian-type shirt with a pattern of cocktail glasses. The two swapped stories for several minutes—"My brother graduated from Washburn in '56," one said as "Summertime" and "Cheek to Cheek" played on the stereo and cigar smoke drifted past. I watched a woman ask a stranger to snap her group's photo in front of the stream. "Just take it from the waist up," she requested. No one was getting any younger.
Jax is so old-school it starts serving dinner at 3:30 p.m. If you order from the early-bird menu, the meals cost about 15 bucks. (I'd recommend the zippy meatloaf with garlicky mashed potatoes, or the Polish dinner, which comes with buttery pierogi, sauerkraut, and a juicy sausage whose perfectly seared skin practically pops when your teeth snap through it.)
Jax's food seems straight out of a vintage copy of Betty Crocker's Easy Entertaining: prime rib, shrimp cocktail, chicken Chardonnay, broiled Parmesan-topped tomato, hash browns, and a steak-house iceberg wedge with blue-cheese dressing. "Sriracha aioli" is the lone trendy phrase on the entire menu. If I were prejudiced against such traditional foods—and sometimes I am—I might complain about them being mushy, overcooked, and indistinct. But at Jax, I was surprised to find the shrimp toast paired with a dipping sauce that was actually spicy, trout so lightly cooked as to seem almost sushi-like, and a side of fresh veggies with an al dente crunch.
Jax's kitchen excels with one-pot dishes that sit on the stove and simmer, such as chicken noodle soup and clam chowder; or short ribs that glisten with fat, their pudding-soft meat infused with a deep, winy flavor (but garnished with fried carrot curls to give the dish a modern touch). But Jax's lighter, more summery fare works just as well. The house salad—Romaine lettuce tossed with creamy garlic dressing, strands of Parmesan, homemade croutons, and cracked pepper—is a plain and simple pleasure. As is the lemony, poppy seed-studded shortcake with an expert crumb that's piled with whipped cream and ripe berries. I'd almost call it Grandma's food—though mine never cooks whole lobster.
Jax is known mostly as a steak place, and its signature cut is the bone-in tenderloin, a more flavorful version of the typical filet mignon. It's sprinkled with Jax seasoned salt (think Lawry's), topped with a mushroom cap, and served with a foil-wrapped baked potato. It's the quintessential meal of American luxury from the blissful days before the words "carbs" and "cholesterol" pervaded the popular lexicon.
Decades ago, everyone said Jax would die off along with its blue-haired clientele, but Kozlak notes that aging generations keep replacing those that depart. The place has beaten back blows that have crushed lesser restaurateurs: the demise of the three-martini business lunch, the citywide smoking ban (though, thankfully, Jax still gives out those cute little personalized matchbooks if you give your names when you make a reservation). In fact, as Northeast's housing stock turns over, Kozlak says the Jax crowd has even started to get younger.
Yet while the city has seen its share of old-school joints invaded by hipsters (Nye's Polonaise), and retro concepts reborn as new ones (Psycho Suzi's), Jax has remained blessedly untrendy, which may be part of the secret to its success. The food's not complicated, but it's consistent. And the restaurant's friendly, family-run mentality continues to make it the sort of place that might retire a waitress with 40-some years of service. Kozlak sticks with what he knows: plain, honest fare for just such folk. "We never try to be anything but what we are," he says. And that's just the way we like it.
Jax is hosting an open house on Sunday, September 21, from 4 to 6 p.m., in honor of its 75th anniversary. RSVP by September 14 to Bill@jaxcafe.com or 612.789.7297.
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