"I'm the third captain of this ship," says Jon Alexis, owner of TJ's Seafood Market on Preston and Royal. What do I like? he asks. Salmon for me, scallops for my wife, I reply.
It's a Monday evening in late August. Locals shuffle in, get tables or order fish at the market counter. Alexis joins us at a big booth. Plenty of table space for food — and plenty of time for him to talk about what he cares so deeply: TJ's and seafood.
Alexis is expanding his restaurant portfolio, opening the excellent Ramble Room earlier this year in Snider Plaza — a restaurant that he says isn't "very Dallas," but rather, "very University Park" — and later this year, Birdie’s Eastside, which he calls a "Katy Trail Ice House-sized, massive 20,000-square-foot behemoth." But even as Alexis' Imperial Fizz Hospitality restaurant group expands, the crown jewel is still TJ's.
Back in 1989, TJ's was founded by a guy named Tom and a guy named Jim. Thus, TJ's. Alexis was only ten years old, and the following year, his family moved to Dallas from Virginia Beach. "My family was customers here for years and years," he says. "And when my mom and dad retired from corporate America, they bought the neighborhood fish market." TJ's had new owners. After working as a political campaign consultant, Alexis bought the family business in 2009, taking over TJ's.
"It's b.s. that you cannot get good seafood in Dallas," says Alexis. "In fact, everyone kind of concedes that Dallas isn't a seafood town, but I saw something that said more seafood flies through DFW than any airport in the country." Fish, shrimp and oysters, etc. on their way to Boston and Baltimore stop in Dallas. "It's the myth of fresh seafood," says Alexis. "That if you cannot see water, you cannot get good seafood."
So Dallas is a seafood town, or rather, it can be. "But," Alexis adds, "Dallas doesn't have a seafood tradition of its own." For him, that's no hindrance, that's liberating. "This allows us to create a mixtape of our favorite seafood dishes and styles from around the country." To do that, Alexis visited restaurants and fish markets across the country, from Seattle to San Francisco, Boston to Baltimore — you name it, he's been there and he's tried it. "So we can be this cool mixtape because Dallas has no seafood culture. We are a blank slate."
The salmon arrives. "We do what's called a hot smoked salmon," says Alexis, gesturing to the spread before us. "You want lox? There are a million great lox places in town. What we do is hot smoke." At TJ's, they dry the salmon overnight in granulated garlic, bay leaves, brown sugar, white pepper, cloves and a couple of secret ingredients. Then, they smoke it over a 50-50 blend of hickory and Alder chips. This is then served with egg whites, egg yolks, red onions, parsley, a little dill cream cheese and a little creamy mustard — which is inspired by the mustard at Joe's Stone Crab in Miami.
"See? I said we cherry-pick our favorite little details of the best seafood experiences in the world," says Alexis. "We've had 34 years to get all the little details right, and every vacation I go on, I come home with something I love."
The salmon is followed by scallops, seared to perfection — the assured hand of three decades' worth of seafood experience.
"TJ's is a neighborhood restaurant," he says. "My background is in political campaigns: My instinct is block-walking, shaking hands and kissing babies." The restaurant is part of the community — something that was evident during the outpouring of support during the 2019 tornado that ravaged the area and the pandemic that followed a year later.
"The fact that we've been here for 34 years isn't an accident," he says. "See that sign up there. You can read it." I do. It tells me not to trust a fresh seafood market that doesn’t run out of fish. The evening goes into night, and there's not much in the market's display case.
"We don't have all our fish," says Alexis. "By the end of the day, we run out of things. And that's how you know we're good, right?" Right.
In case you missed it, check out Local Profile's visit to Ramble Room: