Maximo takes a lot of pride in its food. We're not sure why.
You've heard this sort of thing before: "Your job is safe," or "I was just out with guys." Maybe you believe such assurances the first few times. After a couple trips around the block, however, you catch on. And the more absurdly cocksure in delivery, the more red flags should pop up. Stuff like "It's a slam dunk, Mr. President" and Dick Cheney's insistence that torture is a "no-brainer" comes across as so blatant that...um...
OK, some people fall for outlandish crap. Still, when our waiter at Maximo approaches to take drink orders one evening, his boast about their margaritas offered no comfort. The Tex-Mex cocktail is "what we're known for," he says. Really? The place has been open for only a couple months; word couldn't spread that fast. Besides, aren't they supposed to be some kind of restaurant—you know, food and such?
If our waiter is to be believed, we'd be better off slurping tequila for dinner. And for me, that's home cookin'. A bottle of Sauza Hornitos and, maybe, some chips—perfect. Aside from the near-classic margarita recipe, they fool around with a lemongrass version, a bit of alcoholic fusion called the "marjito" and several other specialty cocktails. The lounge area received far more design attention than the stark white dining room, and a wall of backlit beer bottles greets you at the door.
My instinct was to head over to the bar. My more civilized dinner guest began to worry.
In some respects, food service is really an afterthought here. Salmon steamed with tequila—what a waste—comes out clean and peachy and tremendously bland. The so-called "Mexican herbs" (Cilantro? Acapulco gold?) have little impact beyond a faintly grassy reflection. Sides of jicama slaw and corn pablum hardly help out. Alberta's enchiladas, billed as "a truly Mexican classic" and "the best enchiladas you will ever taste" blend spinach, onions, pico de gallo and a rumor of chicken into a filling that tastes like spinach. According to one of Maximo's ever-informative waitstaff, the dish is named for chef Amador Mora's mother-in-law, who apparently learned to transform several distinct ingredients into one flat and unimpressive whole from her mother in a recipe more than a century old. Back in the good old days, meat was sometimes hard to come by, which may explain why each enchilada contained only one shard of chicken. Oh, they've reached a wonderful texture, gentle and almost buttery. But there's nothing at all thrilling about the entrée. Even Alberta's "secret sauce" will probably make you wish she had kept it to herself.
So—best ever, secret sauce. Such hyperbole continues throughout the menu. For example, it attributes the signature guacamole and ceviche dishes to the restaurant's "famous" guacamoleros.
Yep, declared famous even before the place officially opened. More red flags, right?
Well, the guacamole turns out to be bright, fresh and magnificently chunky. The indescribable taste of avocado carries the sauce, supported by just enough salt for a sharp backbite and just enough heat when ordered medium to make itself felt. My guest on this occasion pondered for a moment and said, "It reminds me of the guacamole at Trece's."
As it should. Mora bolted from the Knox-Henderson establishment to open Maximo, enticing sous chef Joey Villarreal from New York to assist and bringing along a few recipes from the old place. I'm not sure, though, if I see any value to this guacamolero show, which they extend to the tableside preparation of ceviche. It is one thing to watch some guy in a tuxedo set a serving of crêpe suzette ablaze or have a gaucho brandishing a saber studded with grilled meat approach your table. But this is some kid muddling fruit and vegetables in a bowl, a process about as exciting as the waiting room at Discount Tire. And when it comes to the seafood dish, the entire affair takes a perturbing turn.
At least with guacamole, you can anticipate that flash of gleaming metal as it severs deep green skin (trying to add a little excitement here) and that clever flick of the wrist revealing the avocado's core. Yeah, for squeamish sorts who think the fruit looks a bit testicle-like, the act can cause some restlessness. But tableside ceviche involves the same young male working a tube-shaped tool in a rapid up and down motion until creamy paste of tomato and garlic emerges in the bowl. He then reached into a canister and pulls out a few marinated shrimp.
Only a brief moment when questions of a sanitary nature pop into your head prevents you from muttering "big wow."
At least whole shrimp provide some textural balance to a gooey mash dominated by citrus and cilantro. There are, however, some interesting menu items here. Queso fundido layers mushrooms, poblano and rather potent chorizo under a mat of intriguing cheese, creamy and gritty at the same time with a scent of age and tartness mellowed by the passage of time. Their interpretation of chile rellenos slumps in an adobe-colored sauce that might resemble something from Campbell's, but for a modicum of heat and tossing of spectacular cotija. Inside, raisins and crumbled peanuts enliven the experience, providing crunch and contrast to the dish. Shrill acrid notes jump from muddy gulf shrimp skewered with peppers, onions and such. The shellfish reside on a bed of Veracruz rice, steamed until mushy and sodden yet saved by the ballast of intense olives and modest capers.
The inconsistencies evident in Mora's cooking should raise more doubts. But keep in mind, this place is known for frou-frou bartending skills. So on a midweek visit, it was as if I'd stumbled into the place where ladies' nights gather: table after table of mostly blond women laughing over lemongrass margaritas or small fishbowls of magenta slush in which floats a flower one would probably judge as exquisite (if one were prone to judge such things). On weekend evenings, an older "couples" crowd fills the room—one also keen to sip frilly cocktails.
Makes sense, really. The most consistent item on the restaurant's menu is one that pairs up nicely with margaritas: salsa.
They serve two kinds with chips. One is a rusty, earth-worn and somewhat piquant combination most people now associate with Southwestern cuisine; the other, a knockout puree of roasted jalapeños, olive oil and salt. For something so easy to make, the pale green sauce unravels across the palate, sweet at first, with a hint of smoke and the threat of capsaicin—all over a bright, herbaceous background.
It's enough to make you want to order another drink.
Maximo 5301 Alpha Road, 972-233-5656. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. $$$
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