Max’s Restaurant is a chain that extends worldwide to well over 100 locations, but what may be a household name in its country of origin, the Philippines, still flies well under the radar here … unless you talk to local Filipinos. In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, you might be curious about this Southeast Asian archipelago of 7,107 islands east of Vietnam. Fair enough. And what better way to get to know a culture than by its cuisine?
Well, we have a Max’s, too, housed in a large freestanding building that was once a Lone Star Steakhouse. Save for a stone fireplace and a dedicated bar area, it’s somewhat plain in here, a maze of rooms with ordinary tables and chairs, although there are a pair of childlike paintings of chickens next to the kitchen. I am not generally a fan of Filipino cooking, which I find greasy, bland and often overly sweet. But Max’s has several good dishes, and a loyal following; at peak hours, plan on a short wait for your table.
The restaurant is renowned for a fried chicken recipe, a crisp-skinned, unbattered bird served with atsara, a spicy papaya and carrot relish. Those bottles on your table contain banana ketchup, Worcestershire and Tabasco, which are meant to be combined to make a proper sauce for the chicken.
For some, the chicken is dry, although I like the golden, shatteringly crunchy texture, and love the sauce. Most customers order it, served half or whole, on the bone, natch, since the clientele here is overwhelmingly Filipino, and that’s what Max’s is known for. But man does not live on chicken alone, and the relatively large menu is a “greatest hits” of this exotic, hybrid cuisine of Pacific Island, Chinese and Spanish influences.
The main menu doesn’t yet have an appetizer section per se, although the takeout menu does. One you can ask for, however—and should—is lumpia Shanghai, a delicious, bite-size version of the egg roll, at least a dozen of them, served in a small basket. The rolls are denser than what you get in a Chinese restaurant, thanks to a meaty filling. I find them addictive, and that goes double when you dip them in the sweet-and-sour sauce served alongside.
One of the best bargains is garlic fried rice. I had to blink when I ordered the regular size for $3.50. It’s a huge bowl, with easily enough rice for four people, and the scent of garlic perfumes every mouthful. One of the most famous Filipino dishes is adobo, here done with pork or chicken. The name comes from adobar, Spanish for “to marinate,” more specifically with vinegar and salt, and here, the meat is braised without sauce, and served in big chunks with a tomato and onion salad. It’s my favorite dish on the menu.
I also like the very Chinese pancit bihon (sautéed rice noodles with cabbage, chicken and beef, again served in a huge bowl) and sizzling tofu, which comes on an iron platter in a garlicky sauce. But unless you’re Filipino yourself, I’d have to call kare-kare (a flour-rich beef and peanut stew), or pinakbet (a vegetable stew dominated by the flavors of shrimp paste and ampalaya, bitter melon in English) to be, er, acquired tastes.
By all means, though, save room for halo-halo, one of the world’s most bizarre, delightful desserts. Picture a glass bowl you’d use for an ice cream sundae, and then substitute purple yam ice cream, young coconut and multicolored cubes of jelly, then throw in a little flan or egg custard, lots of shaved ice and, presto, you’ve got it.
They’ve left out the jackfruit and mung beans traditionally used in the Islands, but maybe eating foods with banana ketchup and purple yam ice cream is exotic enough for one visit.
1290 E. Flamingo Rd., 433-4554. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun-Thu, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri-Sat. Lunch for two, $25-$39.