On the House is an occasional Eater feature written by the chefs and owners of our favorite establishments. Today, seafood mogul Jon Alexis of TJ's Seafood Market speaks on a topic near and dear to his heart: the current state of the city's seafood scene.
My brother moved away from Dallas years ago. When he returns, he marvels at how the city seems to change overnight. New buildings and new neon. New neighborhoods, even (gasp!) parks. It's not just development. Entire food cultures, formerly under-represented by both supply and demand, seem to pop up overnight, too. Remember when Dallas was a lousy pizza town? Like, kind of recently?
We heard Dallas diners didn't know any better. Or they assumed Dallas pizza had to be mediocre. Why would a pizza maker waste money on good ingredients, technique and equipment if the customer didn't seem to care? And then... there was great pizza. And great pizza competition. And people supported it! If you bake it, they will come. Local beer. Craft cocktails. Barbecue worthy of our state's reputation. Farm to table cooking. Ramen ramen ramen. Ambitious entrepreneurs bet on the Dallas diner's palate... and today are consistently winning those bets.
There is another, quieter food revolution happening in our town. And more so than any other, our former deficiencies and current proficiencies are directly tied to the diner's attitudes, palates and assumptions. Read these words. Be shocked. Dramatically spit out your local honey Old Fashioned across your Neapolitan pizza in disbelief. Read them aloud: "Dallas, Texas can get incredibly fresh seafood."
Hard to believe? Much like in Peter Pan (or The Matrix), you can't fly unless you believe you can fly. If Dallas doesn't believe it can get good seafood, it won't. If Dallas demands premium seafood, they have better access to a wide variety of it than most places on Earth. And that's the revolution that is happening right now all around you.
No food relies on the partnership between customer and purveyor like seafood. A cook can order the freshest seafood today. But if no one eats it? It's tomorrow's day old seafood. Literally: a partnership. Why don't some people believe Dallas can get fresh seafood? Because we aren't on a coast? More seafood flies through DFW airport than any airport in the country. Those Cuban-style mussels you ate in Miami? Air-shipped from Nova Scotia. That wild salmon on your $200 tasting menu in Napa? Flew in from Alaska. Those crabs in Baltimore? Good chance they were from Texas. That 400 seat tourist trap outside Pike's Place Market? Are they filleting and portioning fresh out-of-the-water halibut for 1,000 people a night? Hardly. Mahi tacos on your tropical island vacation? Likely frozen fish. How many commercial fishing boats do you see on vacation? Land owners make more money with a Four Seasons on the beach than a pier.
Bottom line: Just because you can see the water doesn't mean your fish is fresh; just because you can't, doesn't mean it isn't. For years Dallas restaurateurs served cheap seafood, and kept serving it way past its expiration date, betting that Dallas diners didn't know any better. Or if they did, they were resigned to accepting mediocrity. Now, Dallas is becoming the seafood town it's always had the access to be.
Look at the recent exciting restaurant openings. Driftwood is serving as creative a seafood menu as any I've eaten around the country. People are #Tesaring over Spoon, Marc Cassel's rocking mussels and more at 20 Feet, and Sea Breeze is frying clam bellies up in Plano. Our TJ's customers are as at ease with comfortable favorites like gumbo and seared scallops as with exotics like grilled razor clams, sea urchin sashimi and shad roe at our new market on Oak Lawn.
But here is where the revolution is really exciting. Seafood is pervasive across town, not just in the fish-centric joints. Neighborhood Services features a nightly Left Coast/Right Coast fish. Boulevardier features a raw bar and incredible authentic French seafood dishes. Oak hosted a private dinner focusing on Austrian seafood plates. FT33 shows a modernist slant — uni pancakes and Gulf fish in ham broth are both killer dishes. Stephan Pyles' Stampede 66, a wild celebration of all things Texas, features Gulf by-catch daily, making use of the literally thousands of species of Gulf fish once considered "trash".
The FDA suggests we eat 2-3 servings of fresh fish a week. Finally, Dallas diners have that many (and more) options sourcing and serving great seafood in town. The rest is up to you. Demand it. Send "fishy" fish back. And thank you, because none of us can bring great seafood here without your efforts and support.