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Lunch review: Max's Empanadas excels at Argentine comfort food

Approaching Max's Empanadas at 313 High St. in Little Italy might feel like walking up to someone's home, until you get past the threshold. On the street, only the signs distinguish it from the other homes on the block.

Inside, things change, assuming not every foyer in Little Italy sports a long deli display case offering stuffed pastries, desserts and lunch specials printed on 81/2 -by 11 paper and taped here and there. The opposite wall supports a micro grocery and wine rack. You can buy wine to go and/or enjoy it with your meal.

The menu continues on the wall behind the deli case, part of it appearing on a menu board, then more taped-up pages listing various offerings. Max gives the phrase "browsing the menu" a new twist. It involves a bit of hunting, too. And marveling.

12:01: We enter and stand around for a few minutes getting our bearings. We case the deli case with its taped-on specials notices, look over the back wall to find more menu items and study those. The guy behind the counter (not Max) asks if we are ready. The wine and grocery bits catch my eye and it seems as if everywhere you look, there is something new just hanging around trying out a new concept called functional disorder. I did feel like browsing and I didn't want to stop. But our time is limited so we start ordering.

Had we been a bit less discombobulated by the surroundings, I probably would have ordered a couple more goodies. Instead, we think we are being extravagant by requesting a Milanesa with salad and three empanadas — for two.

12:20: We are served. Max's dining room tightens the converted rowhouse look with an exceptionally narrow dining room. Small tables that closely seat four abut one wall. Along the opposite wall Max mounted uber substantial lumber that could be shelves if they weren't … um … tables, each seating two. The overall effect is not so much cozy as laid-back casual with a warm neighborhood vibe supported, while we were there, by a thumping bass from a music track that at first I took to be disco but later decided was Argentine rock.

Max's isn't crowded so we take a table, figuring we can always move if a foursome comes in. I'm glad for the extra room when the food arrives.

The Milanesa, a pounded thin and breaded chicken breast topped with sundried tomato puree and Parmesan cheese, recalls chicken Parmesan but is more closely related to schnitzel. The Argentine repertoire leans European — even Mediterranean — rather than Latin American. The Milanesa is a flavor bomb, nothing delicate about it. The deep tomato tang nicely complements the crunchy breading on tender chicken topped with a sprinkling of Parmesan. The accompanying salad is a good foil to the savory depth of the Milanesa. By the way, the ranch dressing — a choice of my dining companion — is the best I've had, with no trace of the gooey heaviness I associate with oft-maligned ranch dressing.

And then the empanadas. Two words: Argentine comfort food. Is that three? Oh, well, it is hard to stop talking about Max's specialty, pastry filled with any number of ingredients. They're about the volume of a baseball, but come in different shapes. We love the buffalo chicken empanada, probably not an Argentine tradition.

The mixed vegetable — peas, corn, lima beans, mild peppers, onion and carrots — is my first favorite. But it drops to second place when we sample the beef and brown sugar combo … with raisins. It's like a neat sloppy joe with a bit of spice and a brown sugar glazing. The raisins give just a hint of fruit and make it my surprise favorite of the meal.

12:40: We finish. Splitting the Milanesa and three empanadas left us filled just shy of triumphant discomfort. I order more for the next day's lunch because I live nowhere near Max's and I know I'd crave his pastries sooner than later. And at $3.15 apiece, you can indulge your indecision by picking more than one.

12:45: We pay, grab a box of six to go and exit.

Max's didn't assuage my Baltimore neighborhood envy one bit. His empanada shop is yet another good reason to live in Little Italy and well worth a trip across town for a treat that delights on several levels.

Dining time 44 minutes

Max's Empanadas

Where: 313 High St., Baltimore

Contact: 410-547-7900

Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

Lunch entrees: $3.15 - $8.50

Outstanding: Good: Fair or uneven: Poor:

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