“A white guy walked into a Filipino restaurant” is how this review should begin. Actually, Will and I are both white by appearance, but since he is half Filipino, I was the only Haoli in the restaurant at this particular time. I say all of this in humor, but as is the case with each visit to a Filipino restaurant, I have managed to turn heads or cause a minor commotion. Look, such cuisine is very underrepresented in this country. Chances are, when eating at such a restaurant, the only customers will be from that of the native homeland. That’s just how it goes. No matter how amazing or American-like some of the food is, most people do not even know it exists or care to venture further. But that gripe is cause for a later post.
We entered the legendary Filipino chain Max’s with hungry stomachs. This is the fourth Filipino restaurant I have eaten at. I pretty much know what I want, but I defer to Will for the ordering. A little of this, a little of that. Our table is usually littered with platters. My first question to our waiter, whose name was Joseph and who was fantastic was, “What kind of native beer do you have?” He responded saying, “Let me know if you like light, medium, or strong, and I’ll just bring it.” I started out with medium, which was San Miguel. Never seen that anywhere. It was a perfectly crisp beer. As we waited for our food, I glanced around at the room. All large tables of families on this Sunday afternoon. Generations sitting together laughing, talking, and eating.
Our appetizer hit the table: a plate of fried chicken skins known as chicharron. There’s nothing healthy about this at all, but it’s so good. Fried to a crisp and served with white vinegar for dipping and a sprinkle of lemon juice. Wash this all down with some of that cold beer, and you have as good an appetizer as you could hope for. If you cannot enjoy something like this, you either have no soul or you’re a vegan. I feel bad for you.
A few minutes before our meals arrived, two ladies from the table next to us actually got up and came over. “Excuse me, but are you guys Filipino or have you ever been to the Philippines?” Will said he was half, and has visited Manila. They laughed and said, “Oh, we were all wondering since we do not see many non-Filipino’s here”. After they shared a few words in the native language with each other, and a few laughs, she looked at me and asked what I like to eat. Of all the things, I said, “I love Dinuguan” which caused her to throw her hands up in the air and yell, “Ah! Dinuguan!” Their whole table erupted in commotion and smiles. Dinuguan is, of course, a terrifying dish to most people, consisting of chunks of organ meat cooked in blood. Mind you, this was not on the menu at Max’s. Our food arrived, and the two ladies left us to the task ahead, but not before saying we were both the Filipino word for “handsome”. The whole table of eight stopped by to say good-bye on their way out.
Now it was time for the entrees. Let’s see, there was sizzling milkfish, sizzling tofu, beef steak, and garlic fried rice. Note, these are not the ethnic names, but I’m sure my readers will not mind. The milkfish was served “sisig” style, which is how the pork at Flavours of Manila came. This means it was diced up into small chunks and placed on a burning hot skillet. It comes sizzling, part of the fish sticking and crusted to the bottom. When it gets scraped up, the pieces of char and flavor are marvelous. If spritzed with some lemon, the dish takes on a fresh, almost healthy feel. Asian food is all about a range of flavors and textures: sweet, sour, savory, hearty, acidic, crispy, soft. It’s all there in these dishes I am trying to describe. The tofu also came the same way. Cubes of the tofu were beautifully seared on the bottom and tossed with peppers and onions. The best of what we ordered was the steak. This was thinly sliced pieces of beef in a rich brown gravy, topped with raw onions. The meat was tender, the gravy had the right amount of salt, and the onions (due to being left raw) added some additional crunch and pop of flavor.
When it was time for another beer, Joseph asked if I wanted to try the strong one. I said sure, and was brought over a Red Horse. I didn’t think it was too strong, and complimented the meal well. It comes in at 8% ABV which is on the high side for beer. For dessert, no Filipino meal can be completed without Halo Halo. It’s a mixture of many things, most notably ube ice cream, shaved ice, sweet and condensed milk, jello, jackfruit, mango, a morsel-sized piece of flan, and probably a few other ingredients. It’s cold and sweet, and is a nice way to cap off such a rich meal.
The quality at Max’s reached the same high levels as Flavours of Manila in East Brunswick, which I gave a 4.5 to. But since this place is a chain, I am more inclined to give them a 4 out of 5 stars. This is not a knock by any means. Will described it as a Filipino Applebee’s or Ruby Tuesday, but I think they are light-years ahead of them. The food was fantastic, the service friendly and always smiling, prices were great (only $15 for a whole fried chicken, one of their specialties), and the atmosphere combined with my funny story above really made me feel transported somewhere else. It was fun. That’s an exceptional attribute for any restaurant. I’d go back next week if we weren’t going to be out-of-state.
Max’s Restaurant is located at 687 Newark Avenue in Jersey City, New Jersey.