Driving through the constellation of strip malls on North Belt Line in Irving, you'll find various Japanese restaurants with names like Hanasho--titles that would seem to scream "authentic" to Western eyes. Down the street from these establishments, however, beside a doughnut shop with a drive-through, is a boxy little establishment called Mr. Max. The name sounds like a wisecracking anime superhero created by Japanese animators with the Western entertainment market in mind.
Not to be confused with the nearby Max Grocery and Max Aquarium, Mr. Max is a concentrated burst of authentic Japanese as attention-getting as wasabi, the nasal-clearing hot mustard that usually accompanies sushi.
Which brings us to the first clue about Mr. Max's traditional fare: it doesn't serve sushi. A Japanese friend accompanied me on this trek through what I cross-culturally joked was "down-home Japanese"--a comment met by a blank stare from her. She said she always knew a restaurant was Americanized if it served raw fish atop or rolled inside rice. Japanese cooks aren't considered qualified to prepare sushi unless they've trained under a master for five years. It's a highly ritualized food style that's been co-opted by Westerners because of its presentational appeal. So unless she had the license to prove it, Momma wouldn't serve you sushi back home.
The menu at Mr. Max--each item scrawled in Japanese across little rectangles of colored paper and pinned to the wall--is also shorn of yakitori (grilled, skewered meat or vegetables served so expertly at Greenville's Teppo) and tempura (deep-fried shrimp or vegetables), which is bound to eliminate a large cross-section of Americans who think they know their way around a Japanese menu. Ditto the atmosphere, which might be described as cramped--the place holds only a small bar lined with chairs and a platform with four sunken tables. If you plan to sit at one of these, you will remove your shoes (slippers are provided for those necessary treks to the restroom or bar).
Personally, I found that the stark, office-style walls and ceiling added an appropriate corporate theme for a food whose country of origin has so often been written about by outsiders in terms of business competition. It seemed a nice, neutral alternative to the scrolls and bonzai trees and Noguchi-style stone sculptures with which many Americanized restaurants bombard patrons--paradoxically, a confrontation of culture from a nonconfrontational culture. The proliferation of Japanese businessmen, whose laughter grew more raucous with each round of sake, jackets off and shirt collars loosened, charged the establishment with a reassuring, in-crowd electricity.
So, Mr. Max isn't any great shakes for atmosphere or location. Yet my three dining experiences there have ranged from the mouth-wateringly expert to the...well, let's just say I've eaten things at this restaurant I'll probably never try again. But I'm grateful to Mr. Max for an unforgettable--if, to these Occidental taste buds, not exactly edible--experience.
Let's start with the items friendliest to Western palates. Both the karubi (grilled beef) and the shioyaki (grilled, salted salmon) were exquisitely prepared. The amoebic ovals of ribeye beef were succulent and savory despite having been cooked well into the medium range. The salmon, in particular, was a revelation--it broke apart into large, tender flakes under the slightest poke of our chopsticks.
Moving slightly eastward and away from the stove flame, the uncooked fleshes were equally victorious. Tuna sashimi (raw fish without rice) sat flirtatiously on its black tray as fat, elegant pink slices. Tuna has been my least favorite selection at sushi bars because the texture has often seemed mushy, but here the sashimi offered the right degree of resistance. To avoid an international incident, keep your tuna away from your miso (a soybean paste mixed with wheat and yeast). After I'd spread a little on the fish, my Japanese friend looked at me like I'd just bombed a village.
Tataki was cold beef slices, raw in the middle, served in a vinegar sauce on a bed of onion slices. It was tastier than carpaccio, a similar dish drizzled in olive oil and served at Italian restaurants.
One of the more authentic Japanese entrees served at Mr. Max reminded me in appearance of a banana flip, the scary plastic-wrapped dessert that tends to linger on the racks beside gas station registers. Onigiri is a dark green folded seaweed strip stuffed with rice and, isolated in the very center, salmon. The abundance of white grains tended to leave the whole enterprise overstuffed and under-flavored for me, but that just made the salmon seem more precious each time I tasted it.
Two other foods can be filed under the culinary description "interesting..." and left there to gather dust, as far as I'm concerned. My friend, whose English is far better than her confidence in speaking it, asked me if I'd like to sample natto, a vegetable she referred to as "rotted peas." After a short bilingual tango for the right adjective and a consultation of an English translation menu, we discovered that the more palatable--though not necessarily more accurate--adjective is "fermented." Natto arrived as a small mound of green pulp in a beautiful porcelain dish. While adding a dash of soy sauce and stirring it around with her chopsticks, she informed me that many Japanese don't like this particular preparation. The word "fermented" led me to believe that the peas would have a vinegary taste, but the flavor wasn't sharp at all, just thick and vaguely sour and--dare I say it?--composty. I instantly formed a kinship beyond language barriers with that segment of the Japanese population that refuses to eat natto.
Zaru udon sounded innocent enough when described as "cold noodle salad." Yet after I ordered it, both my friend and our waitress said "Are you sure?" with concerned expressions. At that point, I wasn't, but I pressed on with conquistadorial boldness. The problem, it turns out, wasn't some exotic combination for which I was unprepared, but a basic mechanical ineptitude--my clumsy, if determined, chopstick skills transformed an experience with the long, thick, unsauced noodles served on a wicker plate over ice into the great unfilmed Mack Sennett short. Getting the unwieldy noodles coiled around my sticks, then bringing them to the soy sauce-based dip in a cup, was more trouble than the paltry flavor payoff was worth, even considering the tiny heaps of ginger and scallion served on a side plate.
The top-to-bottom Americanization of the East may already be a done deal, but with a restaurant like Mr. Max and a guide like my friend, we don't have to lose everything in the translation.
The Chinese have developed a storied cuisine over the centuries that is acknowledged to be one of the most subtle and sophisticated in the world. Few, however, are the restaurant patrons willing to pay top dollar for it.
Because most of us cut our teeth on cheap Chinese take-out, or on the local suburban mom-and-pop Chinese joint, we've come to think of Chinese food as only slightly more expensive than Burger King and McDonald's.
Chef Wen Dah "Uncle" Tai set out to change that perception when he immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. Tai began as an apprentice cook at the age of 12 in Shanghai, and became steeped in his art after working with master chefs throughout China, Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines. The term "Uncle" is an honorific, indicating that Tai has attained seniority and mastery as a chef.
In the early '70s, Tai set up shop in New York City, where he gained a reputation as a spirited and imaginative chef. Glitterati like Robert Redford, Shirley MacLaine, and Jackie O were patrons, and Tai got a welcome boost when Nixon's trip to China triggered a boomlet of Sino-mania. His subsequent Houston location, opened in 1979, cracked the door to the Sunbelt. The Dallas edition of Uncle Tai's opened in 1983 on the third level of the Galleria.
Tai's specialty is the spicy, often game-based cuisine of the Hunan province. Hunan is the mountainous, densely vegetated region of China so often pictured in travelogues. Temperatures can get nippy in the hills, and the relatively hot Hunan dishes are said to be part of the locals' attempt to stay warm. Of course, by that logic, Scandinavian food ought to be sizzling, and Indian cooking should be innocuously bland, but far be it from me to over-analyze the pet origins of Hunan or any other cuisine.
When Tai hung up his shingle in the Galleria almost 15 years ago, Dallas was still a culinary backwater. Tai was one of the first name chefs in the city, and his "Hunan Yuan" (literally, "Hunan restaurant") took off fast and became a regional favorite.
Now retired from the kitchen, Tai leaves the cooking to chef Ming Kau and the management to his children. They continue the good work Tai started, and Uncle Tai's remains a premier Chinese restaurant.
The rub, if there is one, is the prices. Uncle Tai's is perceived to be expensive, though dinner entrees start at about $12 and don't top the $18 mark. Throw in a beverage, an appetizer, a dessert, and the tip, and you're looking at about $35 per person, a bagatelle by local haute cuisine standards. Clearly, preconceptions about Chinese food being cheap work against Uncle Tai's.
The food and service are in its favor, however, as shown by a recent visit. The restaurant has an understated but elegant interior, featuring a burgundy color scheme, black-and-white renderings of Chinese landscapes, and frosted windows with a translucent, rice-paper look.
Ordering from a team of waiters, we began with soft shell crabs in fresh garlic sauce, two lightly battered crustaceans with a smooth, buttery texture, served warm. It's hardly apparent that you are crunching into a shell, particularly when the crabs are further softened by a dunking in a brown, biting garlic sauce. Another appetizer, diced boneless squab, was a jumble of meat, peppers, chives, and water chestnuts served in a fresh lettuce taco, which provided both a pleasing crunch and a cool contrast to the spicy pigeon meat (squab is just a polite word for a young rat with wings). Shark's fin soup lacked the ominous fin I always half expect to see circling in the bowl, but was full of tender crab meat and packed a peppery punch.
Our entrees included shredded lamb with young ginger root, a mound of delicately spiced meat with an orange tinge (courtesy of sliced carrots) served on a bed of light, crispy noodles. The dark, dense, savory meat is nicely contrasted by the white, gossamer noodles, providing a range of flavors and textures for your palate to mull over. The portion is not enormous, but Uncle Tai's does not dilute its meat dishes with a lot of vegetable filler, so your stomach doesn't feel shortchanged.
Sauteed scallops Hunan style featured silver dollar-sized battered scallops that were moist, tender, and chewy without being tough. An accompanying side dish of steamed broccoli was an uninspired afterthought, and the only part of the meal that didn't pass muster.
Sesame-fried banana and sesame-fried apple offer a sweet but subtle ending, each offering warm, melt-in-your-mouth fruit wrapped in a light, sesame-scented batter.
Pheasant and venison also are on the menu, and Uncle Tai's carries on a long-standing tradition of note to area sportsmen. Kill a critter and bring it into the kitchen, and Uncle Tai's will prepare it for you Hunan style. They already have a ready supply of pigeons, but go ahead and shoot some anyway.
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Mr. Max. 3028 N. Belt Line Road, Irving.(972) 255-2969. Open Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday, 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Closed Sunday.
Uncle Tai's Hunan Yuan. 13350 Dallas Parkway. (972) 934-9998. Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday, noon-9:30 p.m.
Tuna Sashimi $12
Uncle Tai's Hunan Yuan:
Diced boneless squab for two $9.50
Shark's fin soup $6.50
Shredded lamb with young ginger root $15.75
Sauteed scallops Hunan style $16.96
Sesame fried banana $1.75