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Chicken to da Max


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POSTED: Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sometimes I wish human beings had evolved to be more like camels, able to store energy reserves so as to go a few days without eating or drinking. I suppose that's what fat is for and while I wouldn't care for the aesthetics of, say, a storage hump on my back — imagine the fashion design challenge — if you live long enough, figuring out what to eat on a daily basis can become a chore.

Most of the time, I don't know what I want to eat and just want a simple suggestion. But last week I had a sudden craving for fried chicken, that is, home-style fried chicken, not the kind that's commercially coated and breaded or served with 101 gimmicky sauce flavors. Conveniently, Max's of Manila was there to satisfy my craving.

The Philippines-based restaurant chain opened last summer in Waipahu and just opened a second branch near the Costco in Iwilei. It bears mention again for all the townies who wouldn't deign to drive westward beyond Aloha Stadium; you know who you are. You also might be the ones who haven't gotten around to sampling Filipino food, but what are you waiting for? It doesn't get much more Americanized than at Max's. It's the Philippines counterpart to any American family restaurant chain, from Denny's to good old Zippy's.

Regulars at Filipino hole-in-the-wall restaurants might even say the food is more American than Filipino. That's because Max's of Manila's history is intertwined with ours, dating to World War II. American occupation troops in Quezon City at that time were befriended by Maximo Gimenez, who opened a cafe with a menu of fried chicken and steak to assuage the GIs' longing for a taste of home. Locals came around as well, and the menu expanded to include Filipino specialties from many regions.

In spite of being “;the house that chicken built,”; I wasn't impressed with the chicken the first time I visited the Waipahu Max's. But, with nine months of practice behind them, it looks like they have worked out all the kinks ahead of opening the Dillingham restaurant, so the leg quarters or half chicken served on its combo platters are indeed golden, crisp-skinned and juicy on the inside. After my quarter leg was gone, I really wanted another, but had to move on to other dishes.

               

     

 

 

MAX'S OF MANILA

        800 Dillingham Blvd. (across Costco parking lot) » 599-5034

       

Food ;*;*;*
        Service ;*;*;*
        Ambience ;*;*;*
        Value ;*;*;*
        Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily Cost: About $40 for four Also at Waipahu Shopping Plaza

       

Ratings compare similar restaurants:
        ;*;*;*;* - excellent
        ;*;*;* - very good; exceeds expectations
        ;*;* - average
        ;* - below average.

       

For newbies, there is nothing foreign about Max's Basic platter ($5.75), that quarter chicken leg with a choice of steamed, garlic or brown rice. Max's Budget ($6.95) is the same as the platter, with the addition of lumpiang Shanghai, the equivalent of a spring roll. For the more classic lumpia, you could try Max's Fiesta Plate ($7.95) with fried lumpia or with fresh lumpia ($8.95) with a luxuriously crunchy filling of vegetables and slivers of hearts of palm. I liked the filling much more than the lumpia wrapper itself, which had the chilled, spongy feeling of having been pre-made and left to sit in a refrigerator. The ingredients might be fresh, in other words, but being fresh made is just as important.

While the chicken plates are presented for individual dining, other dishes are meant to be shared, family style.

Max's has proven itself to be ahead of its time in assimilating to Western tastes. I've heard from Filipino friends that fourth- and fifth-generation Filipino-Americans are losing their taste for their parents' and grandparents' cuisine due to a combination of a typical Western fast-food diet and reduction of cooking in the home. So Max's is as much a primer for them as anyone else.

Therefore, steak comes two ways. Tenderloin tips ($10.25) arrive on a sizzling platter with garlic and mushrooms in the Western version. Our waiter made the distinction of describing the Filipino bistek ($8.95) as being “;more traditional”; than the other steak dish, which is not the same as being “;traditional.”; It arrives in a gravy of onions and soy sauce with a splash of lemon, but doesn't look or taste much different than teriyaki beef.

Of course adobo ($8.95) needs no introduction. It's one Filipino dish we've adopted as a local favorite. This time I ordered the chicken, which arrived in the form of drumsticks, wings and breasts, unwieldy but tasty in its thick, vinegary sauce.

The strongest flavor came from the pinakbet ($8.95), an Ilocano vegetable saute featuring diced pumpkin, stringbeans, eggplant, okra and bittermelon with the pungent aroma of the fish and shrimp paste bagoong. Minus the bittermelon, a dish staple which can nevertheless be pushed to the side with no harm, this was another of my favorite dishes here.

If you want veggies without the fish factor, there's asparagus and cubes of fried tofu ($8.95) sauteed in a mild, Cantonese-style gravy.

One of the most sinful dishes on the menu is the Bicol express, a chef's special at $13.95. If deep-fried pork belly isn't fatty enough for you, perhaps you'll finally be sated with the pork plus its coating of a thick coconut cream sauce studded with fiery jalapenos.

For dessert, thick leche flan ($3.25) and halo-halo ($5.50) topped with a scoop of purple ube ice cream are no-brainers, so I thought. But while I was there, I kept seeing trays of buko pandan ($3.95) go by, so I had to try it. It's like a junior version of halo-halo, served in a smaller sundae glass, with layers of baby coconut ice cream, cream sauce, tapioca and green gelatin innocuously flavored with pandanus leaf. The entire dessert is then sprinkled with crispy rice flakes.

With the new restaurant's proximity to Kalihi, Max's of Manila's reach embraces the island's two largest Filipino communities. We'll be able to say Filipino cuisine has truly arrived if Max's is able to expand into other Oahu neighborhoods as well.

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Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. E-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).