This popular restaurant is located just off a major road, but set back enough that passing cars could easily miss the building. There are no signs outside advertising its location on the first floor of a residential apartment building on Abu Dhabi’s waterfront corniche.
Still, once you do find your way inside, somehow every single table is full.
Welcome to Max’s Restaurant, the most popular Filipino restaurant you’ve probably never heard of.
In the past 50 years, the brand has grown from a home kitchen to more than 100 outlets, from Manilla to Jersey City. The first Max’s opened in the Philippines in 1945 – nearly a decade before Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken launched in the United States (though Max’s is less fast food chain and more casual dining restaurant, like a Filipino Chili’s or Applebee’s).
Here in Abu Dhabi, Max’s opened in 2012. It quickly became popular with the capital’s large population of Filipino expatriates (they must all have heard about Max’s through word-of-mouth).
Most come for the signature Pinoy-style fried chicken, and with good reason. Max’s Fried Chicken (yes, that phrase is trademarked) is lightly battered, lightly fried, tender, and very juicy. It’s no wonder that the other name for Max’s, in the Philippines at least, is “the house that fried chicken built.”
Try dipping pieces of the chicken in the restaurant’s name-brand red chili and vinegar hot sauce, which you can also buy bottled at the front counter. The banana ketchup, a sweet tomato-based sauce that’s unique to the Philippines, is another must-try condiment.
Max’s may be best known for its chicken, but there are plenty of other Filipino specialities on the extensive, colorful menu. One of the Philippines’ staple meals is among the most popular dishes at Max’s: Sinigang Na Baka, a tangy beef soup served in a tamarind broth. Here the soup is served steaming in a tall bowl, full of fresh vegetables and meat so tender that it slides right off the bone.
They also have Lumpiang Ubod, a Pinoy-style thin pancake rolled and stuffed with slices of crab stick, heart of palm, and other vegetables. It’s served at room temperature and covered with a sweet peanut glaze.
Max’s also offers a famous Filipino appetizer called Lumpiang Shanghai, which is a fried long and thin ‘eggroll’ wrapped with rice paper and stuffed with beef and spices. Max’s fried lumpiang are crisp and not very oily – they almost taste healthy.
For dessert, try the halo halo, or “mix mix” in Tagalog. It’s a vibrant bowl of purple, yam-flavored ice cream, sweet gelatins, lychee and other south Asian fruit all laid on a bed of shaved ice that’s flavored with sweetened condensed milk.
“We want people to come here and feel like they’re at home,” said Torres, who worked at one of the more than 100 branches of Max’s Restaurants in the Philippines before coming to the UAE. “Whether they are coming from work, with friends, or with family.”
Max’s first opened in Quezon City in the Philippines just after World War II, when Maximo Gimenez created a small cafe to serve the many American soldiers stationed in the city. Gimenez’s daughter, Ruby, who managed the kitchen, created a recipe for fried chicken that the Americans fell in love with.
And the rest is history. It now has franchises in the Philippines, the United States, Canada, and in Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi. A fourth branch is expected to open soon in Al Ain, according to Torres.
Torres hopes the Abu Dhabi branch can diversify their clientele to attract more American and European customers, she said.
Max’s Restaurant: see the menu
Address: Level “R” inside Corniche Apartment, Corniche Road (near the parking lot of Formal Park), Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Telephone: +971 2 628 1234