Restaurants & Bars

China Max, after the mobs (long)

Jim Strain | Feb 9, 200411:57 AM     1

No fortune cookies -- and that’s a good thing.

Ever since New Years Day, when she saw Leslie James’ glowing review in the Union-Tribune, Di has been after me to try China Max. A few days later (may have been the following Saturday), we cruised the place at lunchtime, but the mob of would-be diners outside the front door convinced us to have lunch at Spicy City (located in same strip mall at 4698 Convoy St). A few days after *that*, a cautionary review was posted here by someone whose opinion I’ve learned to respect warning of a curt reception, unconscionably slow service, and pretty ordinary food. Still, the pull of the initial report (especially that photo of the special lamb chops) remained strong, so we decided to see if Phee’s experience might have been the result of a new place overwhelmed by an unexpected crunch of customers.

We wanted to go at a time when dinner was being served and there was a good chance that the first team was on duty in the kitchen, but we also wanted to go when we could get a table and the servers weren’t being crunched. Early Sunday evening seemed like it ought to fit that bill, so we arrived about 5:45. There were a number of empty tables, but I noticed that most of them had “Reserved” cards posted on them. We did get seated immediately though, at one of the few tables for two in a back corner. I don’t know what business occupied this space before, but China Max has done a great job in decorating the room. It’s clean, modern and, as expected, brightly lit. There are a few tasteful pieces of folk art on the walls, but none of the quasi-Sino schlock that I know and love. Think a smaller scale version of Emerald. Tables are adequately sized and far enough apart to allow private conversation. I liked it.

The wait staff was mostly personable young women whose first language may not have been English, but who nonetheless were confident, fluent speakers who seemed reasonably familiar with the menu. Our waitress brought a pot of good tea immediately, and when I asked about wine, a short list (typical for Chinese places) was produced. We ordered a bottle of Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc for $18 (super cheap).

By the way, when we were seated, we were each given a copy of the big main menu, but only one copy between us of the “Special Menu” which listed the available live seafood and the house special dishes (the most intriguing stuff). They specialize in seafood, so there was lots of shark fin (which we avoid due to the wasteful and inhumane practices of that fishery) as well as live abalone and crab. I don’t recall any lobster, but there may have been some.

We ordered two appetizers: Dungeness crab (it’s sold by the pound, currently at $10 per) and baby squid with garlic salt. I initially tried to order chicken pot stickers but changed to the squid when the waitress made a face and confided that the pot stickers were “not very popular.” I have no idea if there was anything wrong with them, or if it was just a variation of Chinese waiter syndrome (you won’t like it; it takes too long; etc.).

The crab arrived with the big main shell covering a mound of peppers and some of the tomali, and surrounded by piping hot legs. For the first couple of minutes, you needed asbestos fingers, but I cheerfully offered up my digital epidermis to get at the succulent flesh inside. I love Dungeness crab, but this had to have been the best ever. The only thing that kept us from eating the entire thing was the knowledge that there was other stuff on the way. At the same time, the squid showed up, and it was also very good. I must say, though, that anyone who is averse to spicy food may have a hard time at China Max. All of the seafood and meat dishes we ordered were heavily laced with peppers (Thai chiles, but also Serranos and -- I think -- some cayenne). Some do like it hot, however, and I guess I belong to that group.

For our main courses, we had the braised lamb chops -- something not seen that often in Chinese places -- the house-special jumbo shrimp and scallops and Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce. The lamb chops were just like the ones in that picture in the paper -- about six little chops beautifully braised and served in a savory dark sauce (again with little red bits floating around to increase the heat). I’m not sure of the etiquette, but I picked one up with my chopsticks, steadied it by holding the bone end in my fingers, and pigged out. The chops were cooked beyond medium (I like my broiled lamb chops medium rare) but they were every bit as good as we’d hoped. The jumbo shrimp and scallops were in a very light sauce, and both were perfectly cooked -- no tough, overdone seafood here -- and liberally garnished with (you guessed it) chiles. The Chinese broccoli was also outstanding, beautifully green and with just the right amount of residual crispness, but it did lack the wonderful garlic flavor that we’ve had at the Dumpling Inn. Finally, something that doesn’t often rate mention: the rice. Steamed rice was perfect! It wasn’t too sticky but somehow broke into bite-sized pieces, easily handled with the sticks and with a fresh, toasty aroma. Maybe this was an accident, but if it was, then call it another piece of luck in a star-struck meal. After all of that spicy stuff, the sweet, chilled orange that came at the end was doubly welcome and maybe that had an influence, but these were yummy oranges.

A note about the service. Not long after we arrived, the place had completely filled up with every table taken, and several very large parties (15-20). Except for Di and I and one other couple, all of the diners appeared to be Asian (lots of Peking duck was being served and the heavenly smell made me regret not getting some). Anyway, the service, while perhaps less attentive than one might like (we had trouble getting water, and then getting it refilled), was in my judgment very reasonable for a packed house. There were no long delays and all of our food arrived practically still sizzling.

Our dinner for two, including tax and wine (excluding tip), was $91. We could have eaten for much less, but we took home enough for at least two lunches, and given the excellent quality, I thought it was a bargain. Perhaps my only real quibble was that they don’t take American Express, so I had to put it on the never-never card instead. I think China Max must be getting their stuff together. To quote His Excellency the Governator, “I’ll be back.”
. . jim strain in san diego.

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