The night is off to a good start. There’s some Cajun popcorn (fried crawfish tails) to dip in rémoulade and barbecued shrimp to swoosh around in a dark, throat-tingling roux. More plates follow, and that night – and subsequent ones – makes it clear Maxie’s [formerly Maxie’s Southern Comfort] is settling into its name.
The location couldn’t be better. Not the hyper-competitive Downtown/Walker’s Point area, not “chainstown” in Brookfield. Instead, a former butcher shop on 68th and Fairview on the West Side. If it were any closer to the ramp to I-94, it would be on I-94. Owners Dan Sidner and Chick Evans teamed up with former Eddie Martini’s head chef Joe Muench to do an homage to the South – Louisiana and North Carolina. (Evans owns another restaurant, also called Maxie’s, in Ithaca, N.Y. Sidner ran a restaurant in Vail, Colo., before taking a consulting job with Milwaukee’s De Rosa Corporation).
If you knew the shop that was Gerry O’Brien’s European Meat Market, you won’t recognize Maxie’s. The two-floor house has been transformed. Diners on the first level are in what Sidner called, prior to opening, a Southern brothel. Maybe it’s the attitude – free-spirited, unimposing. Or maybe it’s the décor. The first floor, which is the main dining room, is livelier, with a flat-screen TV behind the bar, dark red walls, kitschy crystal chandeliers and bare black tables topped with bottles of Tabasco. The upstairs is carpeted and quieter and currently is open for dining Thursday through Saturday nights and for private parties.
Sidner predicts the menu will always evolve. In June, he picked up some antique Southern cookbooks and passed them on to executive chef Muench, who is gussying up the regular menu of jambalaya, shrimp and grits, gumbo, po’ boys and a lot more with a few nightly specials, traditional and not. The food packs heat but doesn’t debilitate. It’s more about embracing a culture that’s a bit foreign to us Midwesterners. But how quickly that can change with just one hurricane or Sazerac (an old-fashioned cocktail with roots in the New Orleans French Quarter of the mid-1800s).
When you’ve got whiskey or bourbon in a glass, you need to eat something fast. At least I do. Fried green tomatoes ($6.95) and the aforementioned barbecued shrimp ($9.25) and zesty popcorn crawfish ($9.95) will do. The sliced green tomatoes, coated in a thick, crisp batter, are very firm and not juicy. But then they’re green tomatoes. Dipped in rémoulade, they have a smooth, creamy finish. There are different styles of crab cakes. Some are moister, the crab texture flaky rather than chunky. Maxie’s cake is the moist, flaky style, subtly crisp on the outside and nicely attuned to the peppery Cajun mayo and champagne vinegar-based coleslaw served with it ($9.95).
Then there’s the gumbo, which can be an appetizer (cup $4.50) or main dish ($12.95). In entrée form, it’s a big bowl of andouille, chicken and crawfish stew that belts out its file powder flavor. It keeps company with the vinegar and blue cheese-laced coleslaw and a couple of squares of dense, sweet cornbread.
Everybody’s heard of jambalaya. There’s a Hank Williams song by the name! I bet Hank’s jambalaya didn’t have tofu in it. One version of jambalaya at Maxie’s does. It’s a tomato-based rice dish with smoked tofu, pecans, fresh spinach and loads of red beans ($13.50). Delish.
When Joe Muench was at Eddie Martini’s, I had no qualms about ordering fish. (It was as good as the steaks.) A Cajun/Creole place that didn’t rock the rafters with its fish and seafood would be a problem. Not the case at Maxie’s. Take the catfish Creole, which has as assertive and peppery a blackened coating as you’ll find. Still, the mild, sweet flavor of the fish comes through ($16.95). The seared tuna steak is a tad sinewy, but it’s cooked the way tuna should be cooked – medium rare – and dusted lightly with Cajun seasoning ($22.95). You can’t see it right away, but a few bites into the fish, you discover the savory potato-horseradish cake – like mashed potato inside a crisp shell.
One night, my dining companion wants something mellow to eat. She has no palate for anything that talks back. That’s where pulled pork comes in handy. It’s like the pot roast of Southern food. Well, that might suggest it’s bland. It’s not. The you-barely-need-teeth tender shredded pork is infused with the traditional vinegar-based North Carolina barbecue sauce. Subtle, with tremors of sweetness and that vinegary blush. It’s wonderful with the other slaw they make here – a creamy-crunchy mayo base – and barbecued beans you can imagine cowboys eating around a campfire ($12.95).
Extra side dishes are not frivolous. They’re obligatory. The table’s big enough for a basket of fluffy sweet potato fries with chive crème fraîche ($4.95) and smoky hoppin’ John, a natural for rice-and-beans lovers ($4.95).
This could be the end of the night. Pay the bill and vamoose. I don’t think dessert is obligatory, but the banana chocolate coconut cream pie stands out, tongue twister that it is ($6). Far less sweet than you’d think by the name, the pie is built on a short crust (in France, it’s called pâte brisée) that’s neither flaky nor sweet. And the chocolate-fruit topping is not a bit oversweet.
Folks on this side of town have been clamoring for more restaurants. I understand it. The options are scarce. Better one good restaurant, I say (like Maxie’s), than a squall of average ones.
Address: 6732 W. Fairview Ave., 414-292-3969.
Hours: Sun-Thu 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-midnight.
Prices: appetizers $5.95-$17.50; soups/salads $3.95-$8.95; po’ boys $9.95-$13.95; entrées/specialties $9.95-$24.95; desserts $3-$6.
Service: informal, quick, friendly.
Dress: Don’t you worry your pretty little Southern head about it.
Credit cards: M V A DS.
Handicap access: yes.
Reservations: accepted for 11 or more.