Diner's Notebook

Sometimes it seems as if there's a Texas-genre food place on every other corner. You know: fajitas, burgers, steaks, fried things, mesquite-grilled things, Mexicanized things. Often, there is a dreadful sameness to these establishments. So it's refreshing to stumble across one that does a pretty good job on the standards while putting things into a contemporary context.

Such is the brand-new Jax Grill on the upper reaches of Shepherd, just south of I-10 -- cousin to the original, family-friendly place in Bellaire. Here, first-rate burgers cohabit with such ambitious daily specials as grilled tuna with kefir lime leaves or tender grilled pork chops with a peach-and-pepper chutney. These are the fusion-minded brainchildren of chef Davasha Stalarow (formerly of 8.0), whose association with restaurateur Jack Ray (formerly of Jack's on Woodway and the ill-fated Jaco's tapas joint) seems to be working out in everybody's favor.

Including mine. The first time I tasted the terrific oyster poor boy dressed with jalapeno remoulade, the pico de gallo tucked in with the crunchy little oysters struck me as such a good idea that I wondered why everyone doesn't make their oyster sandwiches this way. I marveled over the size and crispness of the house salads -- a deal at $2.45 -- and the homemade quality of the dressings. Serious blue cheese, non-deprivational low-fat ranch; their only shortcoming lay in the size of the plastic cuplets in which they were dispensed. Salads this enormous require more dressing than Jax sees fit to provide.

The burgers give Jim Goode's a run for their money, and then some: cooked to specification, they are so full of mesquite-grilled flavor that you can eat them unadorned. Too bad about the French fries, though, pale and limpish creatures whose seasoned salt can't save them. And too bad about the stiff, dry fajitas of both the beef and chicken persuasion; they could use a session at fajita boot camp.

Maybe I wish that the basically good-quality buns were delivered on a more frequent basis. (My second oyster poor boy -- yeah, I liked it that much -- came on a semi-petrified loaf.) Maybe I wish that the halfway ingratiating corn and chicken chowder were a little less of a sludge. But the bottom line is that I'll be back. Enough of the food clicks, and the no-fuss semi-serve setup ticks along like clockwork. The airy dining room has a casual, newly minted gleam to it. The covered outdoor deck cooled by ceiling fans is a draw. So, during the dog days, is the glacial indoor air conditioning. How cold is it? So cold that even when they throw the rear wall of garage-style doors open, you might shiver a bit indoors. Feels great.

Jax Grill, 1613 Shepherd, 861-5529.

Jax Grill:
Jax burger, $3.55;
oyster poor boy $5.95;
house salad $2.45.


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