Am I Filipino? No. Have I even been to the Philippines? Nuh-uh. Did I have a lot of Filipino food growing up? Definitely not. Then how can Max’s, a Filipino restaurant, make me feel so at home? It’s hard to put a finger on… So I’ll just start with the food.
First up is the pork sisig. And it’s not just any pork; it’s lechon. And it’s not just any lechon; it’s lechon kawali. For those who don’t know, sisig, in general, is a classic Filipino dish made of pork that has been boiled and grilled and then served on a sizzling hot plate. It’s amazing. Lechon kawali itself is pork belly that has been boiled and deep fried.
As for lechon in sisig form… I cannot overstate how beautiful it is. The fatty hunks of pork, the crispy golden-brown skin, the wonderful seasoning and aroma, and the sound of sputtering hot fat come together in a seemingly simple yet mesmerizing dish. And the flavor is otherworldly. If you enjoy bacon at all, you owe it to yourself to try this immediately. This is a real treat.
Then we have kare-kare. This is a stew with a base of beef and a thick peanut sauce. The peanut flavor is prominent; some recipes even use peanut butter. This also comes with a small side of fermented shrimp paste (bagoong). The paste is strong and salty and can be added to the kare-kare to personal taste. Without the paste, the kare-kare is a bit flat and plain-tasting. Some people prefer it this way, but I rather enjoyed how the sharp and salty shrimp complements the thick and nutty stew. It’s excellent with the garlic rice.
This is the one where I started getting really strong back-home vibes. It’s beef kaldereta (or caldereta) which is a stew of beef and vegetables in a tomato base. It’s quite different than anything I’ve had before, yet it reminded me of stews my mom made when I was little. Perhaps the acid of the tomato was enough, or maybe it was how homemade it seemed. It’s an uncomplicated dish with a lot of comforting flavor and very tender beef. What more could you ask for on a cold winter’s day?
And then there’s this sexy hunk of meat. Look at it. It’s pure. It’s basic. It’s utterly delicious. This is some top quality fried chicken. I also appreciate the garnish of fries.
And then I learned that it’s common in the Philippines to eat fried chicken with this banana sauce. It’s sort of like a sweet ketchup. I was skeptical, but I’m always up for trying new things. Expecting something weird and possibly gross, my taste buds did a double take. The combination of the chicken and the sauce tastes almost nothing like either of them. I can’t really put it into words except to say that it’s very pleasing. It’s kind of odd but also kind of familiar and altogether tasty.
So what is it about Max’s that brings me back to home? Is it the hostess with a friendly grin? Is it the old man near me relishing a slow meal and a fast conversation with his loved ones? Is it the oh-so-comforting food with simple ingredients and a made-with-love richness? I think it’s all of these things, and even though I don’t know the first thing about the Philippines, I felt, briefly, like a part of their family.