The Austin Chronicle

Max's Wine Dive

Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, July 17, 2009, Food

207 San Jacinto, 904-0111
Monday-Wednesday, 4pm-12mid; happy hours, 4-7pm & 10pm-12mid;
Thursday-Saturday, 4pm-2am; happy hours, 4-7pm & 12mid-2am;
Sunday brunch, 11am-9pm

When I heard the hip, popular Max's Wine Dive from Houston was planning a Downtown Austin outpost, I immediately checked it out online. Max's upscale comfort-food menu was very attractive and priced right, so I made mental notes about several dishes I intended to try when I got the chance. Max's opened a block west of the Convention Center in a converted warehouse in the late spring. The interior has a comfortable urban/industrial feel, an open kitchen, one wall dedicated to retail wine sales, and a rock & roll juke box cranked up loud. And by loud, I mean that during the opening week blogger's happy hour we attended, it was impossible to engage in conversation without shouting. When I questioned the hostess about the full-bore musical assault, she shrugged her shoulders, leaned in close, and yelled in my ear, "Loud music is part of Max's vibe." You've been warned.

Max's offers dinner and two happy hours six nights a week and a very affordable brunch all day on Sundays. In addition to very good food, beer, and wine by the bottle and the glass, it also operate a busy retail wine operation. Max's well-trained and enthusiastic young staff is eager to please and creates a fun, upbeat atmosphere. We're told plans call for developing private dining rooms and lounge areas on the building's lower floors in the coming months. We sampled selected appetizers at the first blogger's happy hour and the bold flavors of the fried chicken, buffalo sliders, fried-oyster nachos, shrimp 'n' grits, and baby back ribs more than held their own against the big noise.

We dropped into Max's for Sunday brunch and found the room a couple of decibels quieter. My five guests and I discovered many tempting menu items and were very satisfied with our choices. The big brunch deal is $25 for all-you-can-eat fried chicken with waffles and mimosas, but our server was gracious enough to bring my sister one serving of chicken alongside a big, fluffy waffle with no mimosa for the regular dinner menu price of $15. This is serious fried chicken, with a crisp, crunchy coating and a spicy kick from the jalapeno-buttermilk marinade. The sweet/savory contrast of the waffle against the chicken works perfectly. The fried-egg sandwich ($13) with house potato chips and the Kobe beef burger ($18) with fresh-cut fries are both worthy choices. Both sandwiches have Texas ingredient components (Veldhuizen cheese and Yama Farms beef) and are served on wonderful bread from the new Walton's Fancy and Staple bakery. The garlic-black truffle aioli on the sandwich and the Belletoile triple-cream brie on the burger are particularly flavorful touches. Being a cabrito lover, I opted for Big M's El Muerte ($9): two fried corn tortillas stuffed with spicy, succulent braised goat meat and crumbly cotija cheese, topped with two eggs fried exactly as ordered. It was simple and earthy – just delicious. All three of the egg dishes at our table demonstrated a skilled hand with a skillet.

We celebrated my sister's birthday with three desserts to share around the table. The Half & Half ($6) offers triangles of Max's decadent dark-chocolate-and-ancho-chile Big Ass Brownie and its elegant, custardy white chocolate bread pudding under a scoop of Teo's chocolate-hazelnut gelato. The birthday girl approved. Our unanimous favorite, however, was the Apple Brown Betty ($6), a hot skillet of tart, crisp Granny Smith apples and golden raisins in a cinnamon caramel under a crumbly streusel topping. This dessert had spoons flying, even though its scoop of chocolate-hazelnut gelato wasn't the perfect complement the salted caramel gelato listed on the menu would have been.

I find many aspects of Max's very appealing, even though I'm no longer the target audience for a loud, hip watering hole: well-prepared food with big flavors, respectable portions, reasonable prices, and friendly service. There are still plenty of items on the dinner menu I'd like to check out, and I'm now a big fan of the brunch and that fried chicken. I can always hope the new lounge areas downstairs will be relieved of the deafening vibe. It's either that or takeout.

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