Jak's Shrewd Steakholders

A middlebrow mainstay proves recession-proof.

West Seattle is not a melting pot. There is nothing blended, nothing smooth, nothing uniform, level, or wedded about it. West Seattle—particularly that small bit of it centered like a sniper's crosshairs at the junction of California Avenue Southwest and Southwest Alaska Street—is like a cloistered experiment in ethnographic isolationism done in too small a space. Within two blocks and four cardinal directions of this bull's-eye, one can find almost anything. It's 10 steps from a wedding dress to a bathing suit to a DUI attorney, from London Calling on vinyl to a Brazilian wax, a cocktail, a used television, and a new set of dentures. Measure your steps just right and you can get all of this in an hour, maybe two. Fire down the gin, wear the dress, carry the TV on one shoulder, and snap at passersby with your new chompers and you'll fit right in. Welcome to the crossroads. As for food, this intersection is a chunky stew of possibility and potential digestive challenges for any hungry pilgrim making the West Seattle hajj. Step blindfolded and open-mouthed through any unlocked door, and the odds are about 50-50 that you'll end up snapping the unagi right off the chopsticks of some bewildered girl in nerd glasses and spike-heel boots (which is fun, but not necessarily a good way to make new friends). On one side of the street, diners still cling to the cracked linoleum and shotgun architecture of pre-gentrification. On the other, there are flamethrower curries, tacos, microbrews, chowder, cupcakes, oysters, root-beer ice cream, croissants that'll make you weep for distant arrondissements, tumbledown teriyaki shacks burning with neon, and empty noodle shops where the staff look out suspiciously into the busy street as though waiting for Godzilla, or at least the late-night udon rush that resolutely refuses to come. Smack at the red-dot center of this is Jak's Grill. Jak's is like the model of steakhouses: a museum-grade replica of the elder meat-and-martini operations on which it was based, grown into its own kind of originality. Jak's is a simple, tenaciously neighborhoody place (no reservations, ever, not even if you ask really nicely), dimly lit and un-extravagant and small by modern standards. With 15 years in the rearview, it has some historic weight. In the Alaska Junction, it is an anchor, and draws crowds like it was giving away free pie and Prozac to every 50th customer. It sits—crammed in among the nail salons, boutique galleries, sushi bars, and cluttered antique shops—in a narrow-but-deep double-decker space with dark windows and just enough frontage that if you're looking for it, you won't pass it by. Step in through the only door and there's no doubt about where you are: After dark, it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust, but you can smell the meat and hear the cocktail shakers immediately. Jak's opened its West Seattle location—the flagship of its three-location mini-empire—in 1996, at a point in our nation's fiduciary history when dropping $40 on a fat steak and trimmings seemed like responsible economic policy. More than that, it seemed wise. Forty bucks was a bargain for the meat alone when compared with other steakhouses, not to mention the veg, the starch, and the wrap that came with every order at Jak's. At other meat palaces, an intemperate spender could part with $40 at the bar before he was even seated, then double that at table by the time the apps, the salad, the meat, and maybe some creamed spinach on the side were all plunked down. But in 1996, everyone was rich and stock certificates grew on trees, so Jak's wasn't looked upon as anything more than a highly localized anomaly: a place that produced a fine steak (corn-fed and Nebraska-grown, either dry- or wet-aged in-house for 28 days minimum before making its way to the galley) for a midrange price, and existed as a kind of bridge between the rapidly vanishing $10 steakhouses and the ever-popular yuppie magnets which more or less vacuumed all the disposable income from your pockets the minute you walked through the door. But oh, how times have changed! Fifteen years later, the economy is little more than a series of death spirals interrupted by moments of shell-shocked calm. Former investment bankers and hedge-fund managers—who once were the meat and potatoes of the steakhouse industry—are now selling women's shoes to make their mortgage payments, and the only people actually making any money at all are financial journalists writing books about how they warned you this was coming. Dropping a hundo-for-one on a steak dinner no longer looks like the easy Tuesday night it once was. All of a sudden, eating at Jak's—which hasn't changed its prices much at all—feels like a genius move for those who simply must eat a pound of beef now and then or die from a lack of cow in their diet. The Laurelhurst Jak's, which opened in 2003, does a decent business, moving customers in and out with reasonable speed. The Issaquah location, which threw wide the doors just a year after the West Seattle debut, is notorious for ridiculously long waits (two hours is not unusual at all) and ridiculously loyal regulars who will actually wait that long if for some reason they don't manage to squeeze through the doors with the first rush between 4 and 5 p.m. You can tell how busy the place is just by cruising past at half past 5 and gauging the density of the knot of customers lingering around the front door drooling down the fronts of their polo shirts. The West Seattle location is more of a toss-up. It seats a reasonable amount of customers by filling the bar, the single-file booths on the first floor, a small riser in the back beneath the enormous neon martini glass and wall of mirrors (which is so Wall Street it ought to be enshrined in some kind of museum of retro cool), and then topping off booths on the second floor with prime-time overflow. Because of this (and the fact that they keep a lot of staff on hand), the waits are generally not so bad. You can walk in on a weeknight on either side of 7 and expect to be seated and served expeditiously. On weekends, you just have to take moderate precautions. Do not show up near death from hunger at 6:45 on a Friday. Don't linger at the bar if a booth is what you really want. And while, even today, you're not going to get out of Jak's at 20 bucks a head, you can still eat well here for $40—or what it once cost to have the Beemer valeted, drink some bourbon, tip the barman, and be shown a menu at The Met. I would hazard to guess that the exchange of money (in some form) for meat (in some form) was probably the very first service-industry transaction: one caveman offering another a bunch of shiny pebbles for a chaw off his freshly grilled woolly mammoth leg. In this modern world, not much has changed. Buying a steak dinner is still something of a Neanderthal affair: trading shiny pebbles for meat. The cooks at Jak's have steaks and a fire over which to cook them. You, presumably, have a hunger. Everything else is just details. On a Saturday night, I hit Jak's front door at about 5:30 to find the bar and lounge area full and tables filling fast on the floor. With admirable speed, I am brought back to a booth along the narrow hallway that serves as Jak's main floor and order a martini just like the giant one hung on the wall behind me, only smaller: good gin, single olive, as classic a cocktail as a steak is a meal. I order a ribeye, cooked medium-rare and served with horseradish, a baked potato, some vegetables, a dinner salad, and bread that arrives as half a shining loaf, cut down the middle and stood on its end. Knowing that after the butchery and aging, the cooking of a steak is only a game of timing—of flow control on the part of a grillman who may be looking at 50 of them laid out on the big grill in front of him—I request no sauce, no extras. Just one clear drink and a big hunk of meat with its predetermined sides, the best test for a steakhouse and its crew that there is. When the meal arrives, it doesn't disappoint. The salad is a workmanlike iceberg affair with some field greens mixed in for texture. The potato is a potato, the vegetable a small forest of broccoli florets still on their long, tough stalks. But really, all of this is just window dressing, so that we carnivores can feel somewhat classier than those two cavemen and pretend that three bites of lettuce and the olive in our martini count as eating our vegetables. In the center of the plate, there it is: a lovely ribeye—an inch thick, easy—scored with a perfect quadrillage, seared a caramel brown on the surface and still blushing pink and cool at the center. Above and beyond the salty, savory essence of the thing (ably helped by a lashing of shining grill butter and snowfall of salt), a smokiness to the meat speaks to it having been lightly marinated at some point. And the aging has brought a tenderness, nuttiness, and concentration of flavors to the cut. About 90 minutes later and roughly $40 lighter (less tip), I am out the door. This is about as quickly and as cheaply as one might roll at Jak's, but I am still very satisfied. I'd been comfortable, well-treated, amply fed, and quickly served. I return, alone and on a Monday night, to party like it's 1996. I drink whiskey and cheap beer chasers; ignore the sandwiches, salads, and pastas that lurk on the backside of the menu as if even the cooks wish they didn't have to make them; and order an appetizer plate of large prawns, curled like they're napping in puddles of chipotle cream sauce. Yes, chipotle cream sauce. The grilling of steaks doesn't exactly lend itself to wild flights of creativity. The only place a steakhouse cook's more artistic soul can show is in the sides or appetizers. So at Jak's are ancho-rubbed prawns served in a good chipotle crema and arrayed around a mountain of whipped potatoes; lobster mac-and-cheese; corn cakes; pork chops in bourbon and brown-sugar marinades, brushed with honey and peppercorn glazes; and little skewered brochettes of filet mignon, dusted with Moroccan spices, seared and served with gorgonzola cream—two flavors that go together better than you'd think they would. I mop up the prawns just in time for my salad to arrive, take the obligatory three bites, then push it aside. The main tonight is a New York Oscar—a narrow but thick cut, boneless but still beefy, napped in a great béarnaise (heavy on the tarragon, as is appropriate here) and set with a mound of lump crab meat. The béarnaise is a workhorse, rock-solid enough that it doesn't break with the heat of the steak or even as it cools on the plate. The crab makes a nice counterpoint to the meat, though mostly I eat it alongside the potato pancakes which Jak's will serve in lieu of more traditional potato sides if you ask (something I love the place for). But again, the steak is what matters: dry-aged, center-cut, and heavy. Granted, in this configuration, it's difficult to taste the more subtle flavors, buried as they are under a blanket of béarnaise and a fall of Dungeness. But really, it's tough to complain when you're talking about a fat steak, drooling with butter and topped with crab. jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

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