Maxine's lists no fewer than 24 styles to describe its cuisine, ranging from Basque to Moroccan to Vietnamese. This may sound like folly to some chefs, and in another chef's hands, the resulting international travelogue of a menu could be disastrous. But chef Robert Lewis has been practicing this global approach to food for a long time -- no mish-mash or hodge-podge here, only a decadent and delicious dichotomy.
Reading over the menu is like strolling through a food truck street fair. Sweet pea pakoras ($7), Thai lettuce wraps ($15), Korean tacos ($10) and pork belly ($20) represent some of the spice-scented, brightly colored carts, but further perusal turns up Maxine's KFC ($19) - a version that boasts crispy fried quail -- and the Big Max burger ($14), with its own special sauce. Almost every dish is an innovative approach to a classic or an original creation, and the menu is evolving and dynamic.
Maxine's has been changing its menu seasonally since it was located in Girdwood in order to provide variety to the locals, whose limited dining options could make eating out a repetitive chore. On my first visit, the old menu was on its last hurrah. This was bittersweet; the truffled mac and cheese ($9) is a favorite of mine, but I was also excited for the new possibilities, as I've eaten my way through almost all of the selections.
The server recommended the kebab wrap ($12), and I added a Maxine's green salad ($9) and wonton tacos ($6). The baby spinach was tossed in a candied ginger vinaigrette, with a scattering of blueberries and a savory round of fried goat cheese. The house-made dressing and sweet-tart bite of blueberries showcased how good a simple green salad can be.
As for the tacos, two crispy wonton shells held layers of humble black beans, shredded cabbage and diced tomato. The artistry laid in the seasonings. The beans were bathed in a sesame-soy mixture, while ginger and cilantro perked up the pico de gallo. It was a robust combination of flavors packed in a modest little package.
One bite of my smoky, spicy lamb kebab had me hooked. Thankfully it's featured on the new menu as well. The warmed pita cradled a hand-formed patty of ground beef and lamb, crumbles of feta and Maxine's outstanding tzatziki and harissa sauces.
The next visit unveiled a summer menu, which combined some signature dishes with new selections. It also unveiled a blazing sun: Lucky patrons were able to dine in the new solarium, open to the friendly elements. I picked up a take-out order, an intriguing sounding coq au vin baguette ($12 plus $2 takeout charge).
The baguette (baked in-house) was sliced in half then layered with grilled chicken breast, bacon, succulent mushrooms and generously topped with Brie. A red wine sauce permeated the chicken itself and was drizzled over the open-face sandwich. Arugula, my favorite green, added a punchy counterpoint to the richness.
I had eaten almost half of the sandwich when I realized that the chicken seemed a little too tender -- a few chunks were slightly under-cooked. I returned to Maxine's, and they immediately and apologetically cooked a new sandwich, plus an extra sandwich to boot.
When Maxine's was in Girdwood, I would blithely make the 90-minute round-trip drive to eat inventive food presented in novel ways. Now that the restaurant is across town, I worried that the change in address would affect its appeal.
But Maxine's knows what makes it great: A menu that features eminently reasonable prices (everything is under $31), service that is always professional and friendly and food that inspires discussion as well as cravings. Like its menu, Maxine's evolves.
By Riza Brown
Daily News correspondent