Jon Alexis knows the type. He’s well aware of the geography, and he’s proven them wrong time and time again, but he still runs into them all the time – the seafood unbelievers. Those who need to hear the ocean to think their seafood is as fresh as it can be. They are those who believe that no fishmonger in Dallas – who’s nearest major bodies of water are the result of dammed rivers – could really have fresh seafood. Yes, Jon Alexis has met them.
“Yeah, and then they order the Colorado lamb at dinner and don’t think twice about it. Their strawberries are coming from Brazil or Chile,” he observes. “I would argue that the quality of seafood in Dallas is most determined not by the logistical difficulties in getting it here, but by people’s attitude that you can’t get fresh fish in Dallas.”
It’s an attitude that Alexis is changing one customer at a time at TJ’s Seafood Market at Preston and Forest. Tucked away in the southwest corner of the strip mall, TJ’s is housed in a small shop with a couple of refrigerators and one long, refrigerated counter display case where Alexis illustrates his point about getting fresh fish in Dallas. Whole grouper, salmon – even a couple of scorpionfish graced the display recently – all seem to have been freshly pulled out of the water. It’s the result of small-batch purchasing designed to get his fish according to quality, not quantity.
“We tend to be about getting 10-15 pounds of fish for the next day. We specialize in bringing the freshest seafood from around the world with the intent of running out of fish every day,” he says. “Whereas the grocery store model tends to be more about getting 1000 pounds of fish at a time – that’s what really sets us apart.”
While buying for quality of selection and an intent to sell it at its very freshest may be the hallmark for TJs, however, it is an intimate knowledge of the product they sell – and a smiling willingness to share that knowledge – that give the shop a welcoming, neighborhood feel. Alexis, whose parents bought TJ’s from its original owners in 1989 and then sold it to him in 2009, tells stories of customers who come in with no idea what they’d like to cook for dinner leaving armed with a pound of fresh seafood and a fantastic recipe for it – a recipe often provided by one of the front-of-house staff, all of whom are culinary school graduates. It’s an aspect of the seafood market that not only shows customers how to prepare the fish, but also gives them a sense of ease with a product with which they don’t always feel familiar.
“We work really hard to invest time, training, and money into our front of house staff – you can walk in with no idea of what you want to eat, or knowing what you want but not knowing the right fish, or just walking in and saying ‘I’m looking for a Greek preparation of something’ and our staff has the know-how to not only give you the idea, but give you written instructions on how to do it,” he says.
“We always laugh that fish is an open-book test. If anybody ever calls TJ’s and says, ‘Hey, I got this home, now how should I cook it?’ My front-of-house staff gets their rear ends kicked. We make it a point to make sure every question gets answered before our customers walk through our door to leave. If they had questions on how to cook it, they should leave with written instructions. When you wrap fish in butcher paper, it’s easy to just write, ‘Brown in skillet, finish in oven.’”
Alexis and his staff get plenty of opportunities to put those same recipes and techniques to the test, too, as TJ’s offers catering, as well. In fact, a recent event with the San Jose Sharks (appropriately) once again helped reinforce the notion that TJ’s provides some of the freshest seafood anywhere, regardless of where the nearest coast may be.
“We catered a lunch for the San Jose Sharks hockey team, and they sent us a letter saying that they travel all around Canada and California, and the best salmon and halibut they have ever had was on their flight departing from Dallas, Texas – from us,” he recalls with a smile.
And what it’s all about, really, is freshness. The recipes are great to go home with, but Alexis asserts that its his responsibility to ensure the recipe is being made with the freshest fish possible.
“Even Julia Child couldn’t make an un-fresh fish taste good,” he says with a laugh. “You know, the fish business is funny. Nobody walks into the butcher and says, ‘Are the steaks fresh?’ But everybody walks into the fishmonger and says, ‘Is it fresh? When did it come in? Can I smell it?’ And that’s great, we love that.”
It’s all part of the process of changing perception, one seafood lover at a time.