Max's of Manila bills itself as the house that fried chicken built. That would be dozens of houses, really, mostly in the Philippines.
The back page of the menu provides a short history of the company. In the '40s, a woman named Ruby Gimenez concocted a special recipe for fried chicken to please a contingent of American GIs stationed in Quezon City, Philippines. Soon her informal catering concept blossomed into a cafe, with Ruby's uncle, Maximo, supplying his nickname for the new family business.
Today there are more than 34 Max's in metropolitan Manila. There are also four locations in the Southland.
The fried chicken at Max's will never be confused with anything cooked by the Colonel--and not just because most of the customers speak Tagalog or Ilocano. What makes it distinctive is a combination of crackling-crisp skin (fried without batter) and juicy meat, achieved through an unusual cooking process.
The skin tastes mainly of garlic and oil, but the employees guard the recipe with hushed secrecy. They will only tell you that the chicken is steamed before being finished in a deep fryer. That evidently accounts for the distinctive texture.
Personally, I find Max's chicken bland and greasy, but I am clearly in the minority. At almost every table in the Glendale restaurant, someone is eating a plate of chicken. An order of fried chicken is half a bird with steamed rice and either homemade soup or a standard green salad for $7.65.
Chicken aside, Max's is also a full-fledged Filipino restaurant with a wide variety of other dishes on the menu, such as lumpia, the well-known Filipino adaptation of the Chinese egg roll. At Max's, the lumpia are dense cylinders, consisting of noodle dough and minced pork deep-fried to a hard crunch. I find them unremarkable on the palate.
But lumpia ubod, from the menu's vegetable section, makes a fine starter. It is a steamed, canary-yellow crepe of egg yolks and flour, rolled around strips of unripe coconut and lightly steamed vegetables.
After that, you'd probably want to try one of the Chinese-inspired noodle or rice dishes. Pancit Canton are delicious egg noodles tossed with pork, chicken and vegetables. Pancit bihon is the same dish made with soft, wispy rice noodles.
Most of the fried-rice dishes are simple and satisfying. The best one is probably shrimp fried rice, stocked with big shrimp and laced with garlic cloves.
Meats are eaten in abundance here, and one of the specialties is crispy pata, a huge deep-fried pork leg priced just under $20 and intended to serve at least four hungry people. A smaller but less tender way to eat deep-fried pork is lechon kawali, where the pork is fried in chunks with the crunchy skin attached. Along with your fried lechon, you get lechon sauce, a cornstarch-thickened liver sauce.
There are also hearty soups and interesting vegetable dishes. Sinigang na bangus is a soup made with the flaky Philippine milkfish in a tart broth that fairly reeks of tamarind and is probably too intense for many palates. Ampalaya con carne makes use of a vegetable prized in many Asian cuisines, bitter melon. The fact that Max's pan-fries it with beef doesn't really kill the bitterness.
For dessert, there is a flan or the colorful halo-halo. The flan is a dark and caramel-rich custard, as usual. Halo-halo is an exotic fruit salad layered into a parfait glass.
Max's of Manila, 313 W. Broadway, Glendale. Monday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-12 a.m., Friday 10:30 a.m.-1 a.m., Saturday 8:30 a.m.-1 a.m., Sunday 8:30 a.m.-12 a.m. Dinner for two, $18-$29. Beer and wine only. Parking in lot. All major cards. (818) 637-7751. Suggested dishes: lumpia ubod, $4.65; pancit bihon, $6; half-chicken dinner, $7.65; crispy pata, $18.50.