Approaching Max's Empanadas at 313 High Street 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 8 1/2 x 11 paper and taped here and there. The opposite wall supports a micro grocery and wine rack. You can purchase 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 stood around for a few minutes getting our bearings. We cased the deli case, checked out the specials notices taped thereon, looked over the back wall to find more menu items and studied those. The guy behind the counter (not Max himself) asked if we were ready. I wondered, "ready for what?" I still hadn't figured the place out. The wine and grocery bits caught my eye and it seemed like everywhere you looked there was something new just hanging around trying out a new concept called functional disorder. I did feel like I was browsing and I didn't want to stop. But our time was limited so we started ordering stuff.
Had we been a bit less discombobulated by the surroundings, I probably would have ordered a couple more goodies. Instead, we thought we were 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 row home 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 (am I a music critic? No) and in any case, it was never intrusive, just distinctly noticeable until our conversation kicked in.
Max's wasn't crowded so we took a table, figuring we could always move if a foursome came in. I was glad for the extra room when the food arrived.
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 was a flavor bomb, nothing delicate about it. The deep tomato tang nicely complemented the crunchy breading on tender chicken topped with a sprinkling of Parmesan. The accompanying salad was a good foil to the savory depth of the Milanesa. By the way, we ordered the ranch dressing in deference to the taste of my dining companion. 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. Was that three? Oh well, it is hard to stop talking about Max's specialty. They're about the volume of a baseball, but, besides being tastier, come in different shapes. Regulars will know which is which by the unique configuration of each pastry, which is the empanada — a pastry filled with any number of ingredients. We loved the buffalo chicken empanada, probably not an Argentine tradition. It bore well its roots, blue cheese and all, in the bar food standard but was mellower and less messy.
The mixed vegetable was my first favorite. Peas, corn, mild peppers, onion, and carrots dominated and so I wondered what the attraction was. My lunch companion insisted it was the lima beans. No matter, the veggie pie dropped to second place when we sampled 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 lent just a hint of fruit and made it my favorite surprise of the meal.
12:40: We finish. Splitting the Milanesa and three empanadas left us filled just shy of triumphant discomfort. I ordered more for the next day's lunch because I live nowhere near Max's and I knew 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.
Where: 313 High St., Baltimore
Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Lunch entrees: $3.15 - $8.50
[Key: : Outstanding; : Good; : Fair or Uneven; : Poor]