Strip mall restaurants rarely make great first impressions, but the recently resurrected Mr. Max in Irving seems to go out of its way to ward off all but the most determined diners. The tiny restaurant is tucked behind a doughnut shop and a computer repair store in an under-lit and dismal parking lot. A sign for the restaurant is barely visible from North Belt Line Road, and the windows are blacked out with thick blinds, completely obscuring any view of what's lurking inside. You'll expect a yakuza scene, organized criminals discussing evil-doings over sake, when you pull on the door handle, but the second light breaks through the door, apprehension melts away like miso in scalding broth.
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Mr. Max unexpectedly closed last year and reopened in February under new management, a narrative that so often ends with unpaid rent and a letter from the landlord on the door. But on a recent Friday night, the izakaya was alive and well, with no signs the business had experienced even a hiccup. Laughter and chatter filled the dining room, spilling out into the parking lot every time new arrivals opened the door. Soju was responsible for the noise, mostly, but a dining room that encourages large parties to linger over their booze also deserves credit.
There's a bar wrapped around the kitchen, as in many Japanese restaurants, but there's a reason reservations are recommended for tables on the weekends. Shoes are arranged in neat pairs beneath a raised platform that makes sitting at a normal height feel like sitting on the floor, while a system of moveable planks and tabletops allows the staff to reconfigure the seating area on the fly. Set up one way, tables for two line Mr. Max's wall; set up another way, a massive table for 10 is punctuated by a handful of four-tops. Above the tables, the menu is spelled out on slips that look like small paper flags. You get a menu when you're seated, but it's more fun to look at the dishes written in Japanese on the walls. I started with the squid and natto, if only to give my company a bracing introduction to Mr. Max's cuisine. "Oh, that dish is very Japanese," my waitress said as a warning, but I assured her we were game.
Natto is a dish of steamed soybeans that have been fermented until they're covered in a thick, heady goo of bacteria. At Mr. Max, eau de barnyard, ripe cheese and horse blanket wafted from the bowl garnished with a little mustard, scallions and thin strips of raw squid. Grab a few beans and a long strand or two of slime between your chopsticks for a challenging visual effect. Natto is a taste to be acquired, but once you've found it, you'll be hooked. Maybe.
I received warnings when I placed other orders, too. The grilled mackerel I chose had a very strong fish flavor according to another waitress (it was fresh tasting and delicious), and an order for oysters in olive oil raised an eyebrow despite arriving plump and with a flavor both sweet and subtle.
The squid in squid gut sauce, however, was one dish that stood up to its cautionary description. A small bowl was filled with strips of squid covered in a magenta-colored, thick and sticky sauce. The dish smelled like the dried seafood aisle of an Asian grocery and looked slightly unnatural, but it was mild-flavored and delicately briny, showing that at Mr. Max, it pays to embrace your adventurous spirit.
Not that a worldly palate is required to enjoy yourself here. Some dishes would look right at home on a plate of Southern comfort food. Don't miss the fried chicken, served with a lemon wedge and a dollop of Japanese mayonnaise. Ordered with a side of potato salad, the dish is right out of any Texan picnic spread. You'll clean both plates, and seriously consider requesting citrus and mayo the next time you order fried chicken at Babe's or Sissy's.
Chicken wings doused in white pepper and a little soy are just as approachable, as are the noodle and ramen dishes. The tonkotsu ramen boasts a pork-bone broth so rich and thick it borders on gravy, and is garnished simply with a tangle of seaweed, bamboo shoots and scallions. The shoyu ramen is a little closer to mom's chicken noodle soup, and is garnished with similar restraint. Both are offered in half portions, to leave more space for exploring the rest of the menu.
But for all the safe plates that are served here, you're better served by exploring the dishes that prompt words of caution from the staff. One night my waitress mistook my request for simmered beef, and instead put in an order for stewed beef intestines. But when the bowl arrived, I was happy for the mistake, and enjoyed a dish I probably would not have ordered otherwise.
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The intestines were cut into elongated tubes, and simmered in a rich, mahogany-hued sauce until they were very tender. The scent associated with tripe and other organ meat had been completely cooked away, and what was left was richness and spice, with a subtle sweetness. Fried chicken aside, it was actually one of the more approachable dishes I ordered during my visits, bolstering my desire to gamble on plates that are more exotic. And with prices like these, you can afford to order a bomb or two in the name of investigative consumption. Most dishes are priced under 10 dollars, and lend themselves to sharing, which is why when you come to Mr. Max, you should always bring back up. Which brings me back to those modular tables and boisterous diners. Mr. Max is made for larger parties, and if you happen to enjoy soju, beer or sake, you're going to fit right in. The cooking is relaxed, and while some dishes aren't as polished as they could be, the restaurant remains an exceedingly fun experience. Grab as many friends as you can convince to drive to Irving, and attack the menu with everything you have. Chances are very high that you'll have a good time.
And as you struggle to get up from your seat, and maybe fumble with that long, red plastic shoehorn to slip your boots back on your feet, the staff will thank you for your patronage no fewer than 20 times. Memories of a simple pudding laced with caramel will linger, as well as how it danced in your mouth with warm green tea that tasted of nuts and spinach. Domo arigato to you, too, Mr. Max. I'll be back for more of that tripe stew, soon.
Mr. Max 3028 N. Belt Line Road, 972-255-8889, 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday, $$$.
Squid natto $5.50 Shrimp tempura $6 Tonkotsu ramen $7.95 Beef intestines $6 Pudding $3.50