Saturday, March 29, 2008

Max's Fried Chicken

Max's Fried Chicken Restaurant is one of those Filipino food obsessions that I absolutely MUST indulge every time I visit the Philippines (another one being Jollibee ;-) Having grown up in the Philippines, I have very fond childhood memories of my mom taking my sister and me to Max's Restaurant in the SM Centerpoint Mall near our house in Manila. There we gorged ourselves on delicious Filipino dishes such as pansit, sinigang, lechon kawali, and of course, Max's absolutely divine fried chicken.

It was this combination of nostalgia and gustatory fixation that moved me to drive 45 minutes from my home in Milpitas, CA to visit Max's Restaurant in South San Francisco, CA. (Quite a feat for me, considering the fact that I do not enjoy driving at all, as I mentioned in an earlier post.) But, I'm glad to say, the experience was well worth the long drive.

Inside, the place has a homey, comfortable feel to it. And the staff is quite pleasant and helpful. After my companions and I settled into our seats, I quickly found a unique gem from the Philippines - Jufran banana sauce!

In the hearts, minds, and palates of Max's fried chicken fans, Jufran banana sauce and Max's fried chicken are inextricably linked. They go together like bacon and eggs, cookies and milk, or love and marriage (one made in heaven, of course ;-) The tangy sweet-sour taste of Jufran is the perfect complement to the chicken's subtle seasoning. It is a symbiotic relationship where neither one can fully realize its potential without the other.

I can't imagine anyone coming to Max's and not ordering the chicken. After all, that's what this place is all about. So that was the first thing we ordered. And I'm happy to say that it fully lives up to the standard of excellence established by Max's in the Philippines. The crispy golden brown skin is simply a delight to bite into (producing a very light yet satisfying crunch). And on the inside, the tender and juicy meat is seasoned just right to produce a subtle yet distinctive flavor. These qualities, combined with the lively Jufran sauce, make for an unbeatable combination!

Max's tag line touts it as "The House That Fried Chicken Built". While that is completely true, it's not just the chicken that's good here. We also enjoyed delicous bangus sisig - which consists of finely chopped milkfish (bangus) which is then seasoned with vinegar and spices, fried, and served up on a sizzling plate.

We also had pansit palabok (thin rice noodles smothered with a hearty topping of ground pork sauce, green onions, and egg):

Owing to centuries of contact between the Philippines and China, Chinese influence is quite pervasive in Filipino culture, as evidenced by chop suey, which appears on the menu of many a Filipino restaurant (including Max's):

It's great to cool off after such a hearty meal with calamansi (a Philippine citrus fruit resembling lime) juice...

or sago't gulaman - a refreshing beverage made from tapioca (sago) and jelly (gulaman):

Yes, the 45-minute drive to get to this place can be a challenge for me. But until they open a Max's restaurant closer to Milpitas, I think I will be making many more long jaunts on the freeway ;-)

1155 El Camino Real
South San Francisco CA 94080

(For more info & reviews on Max's Restaurant, visit
Max's Restaurant-Philippines on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 24, 2008

Cool Asian Snacks (Part 1) - Quickly

(This is the first in a series of posts about my fave Asian snacks)

Not all my food explorations are satisfying experiences. Sometimes I don't order enough pork in my ramen and still feel hungry after downing the whole bowl. Sometimes I don't particularly like the food at a new restaurant and will hurriedly leave the place with a large portion of my meal untouched. Or sometimes there's nothing wrong with a meal at all, but for some inexplicable reason, I just need a little something extra to hit the right spot. For times like these, I turn to my favorite Asian snack places. One place that tops the list is Quickly in Milpitas, CA.

Quickly is a hugely popular chain of Asian cafes that originated in Taiwan and now has franchises around the world. Of course, that does not necessarily mean that all Quickly stores fare well. I've seen some Quickly stores (like the one in Sunnyvale, CA) that are absolutely languishing - with nary a customer in sight. Fortunately, that is not the case with the Milpitas store - this place is usually packed, with a long line of people waiting to order their favorite beverages and snacks.

Starting out as simply a place to get tapioca milk tea (aka bubble tea), Quickly expanded its offerings and marketed itself as a "New Generation Asian Fusion Cafe". The "New Generation" part is very apparent when one walks in the Milpitas store, whose patrons are mostly young, hip Asians. It's easy to see why this place is popular with the young crowd. The interior decor looks cool and (to quote Austin Powers) "groovy". The air is charged with loud (but not blaring) Taiwanese pop tunes. On the walls hang large flat panel TVs, where young Asian hip-hop idols (some of whom can really dance!) electrify viewers with their wild gyrating dance moves. There are plenty of magazines on hand to help one keep up with the latest news and gossip about Asian celebrities. Judging from the number of patrons using laptops, there might be free Wi-Fi access as well.

None of the above really matters, however, if the food and beverages are not up to par. In this area, the Quickly Milpitas store scores well in both quality and variety. There are a dizzying number of snacks to choose from - ranging from beef satay skewers, to udon noodles, to fried squid balls. Ditto for the drinks. One can go for milk tea, or fruit juice, or flavored icy slush - and then customize the chosen beverage by adding tapioca pearls or chunks of fruit.

Of all the drinks on the menu, the one I've come to love the most is almond milk tea, with chunks of coconut and lychee - absolutely heavenly!

Being the meat lover that I am, I also enjoy their barbeque chicken sandwich. I find the thick, chunky meat to have just the right texture, substance, and flavor to satisfy my carnivorous cravings.

The almond milk tea alone will ensure that I keep coming back to this place. Also, I see a lot of intriguing items on the food menu that I haven't tried yet (like fried mini octopus) and look forward to exploring. And of course, it's simply fun to hang out here and watch those cool Taiwanese music videos on the big-screen TVs, while soaking up the youthful, trendy energy of the place.

Quickly Milpitas
540 Barber Ln
Milpitas CA

Quickly Milpitas Store on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Gold Ribbon

Some people love to drive. You know the type - they talk incessantly about how their BMW M3 hugs the road as they tackle a sharp corner at 100mph, and the adrenalin rush of surging from 0 to 60 in no seconds flat...well, I'm not one of those people. I don't enjoy driving at all. To me a car is just a tool to get from point A to point B, and the sooner I get the point-A-to-point-B process over with, the happier I am. That's why I was pleased to learn about Gold Ribbon - a Filipino restaurant and bakery in Milpitas that's just a few minutes' drive from my house. It seemed like a convenient place to satisfy my hankering for Filipino food.

I headed over there to try out their breakfast. Filipinos eat rice with every meal - including breakfast. Gold Ribbon offers a variety of Filipino breakfast meals which consist of meat, fried rice, and egg. I decided to go for bansilog, whose name is formed by mashing together 3 words:

bangus - milkfish
sinangag - garlic fried rice
itlog - the Filipino word for egg

The milkfish is deep fried and comes with a small container of sauce - which is made up of vinegar, garlic, and spices:

I found the fish meat to be too dry for my liking, and it tasted rather bland. The vinegar sauce help to liven it up a little, but the overall result was still flat and unsatisfying.

So next I go for a chicken empanada (pastry with meat stuffing). It was pretty much the same as the bansilog - the chicken was dry and tasted rather flat. It left me wanting more...hey, is there a pattern developing here?

I topped off the experience with a halo-halo (a Filipino dessert consisting of shaved ice and milk with a variety of sweet ingredients thrown in - like beans, fruits, ice cream, or as in the example below, a caramel custard known as leche flan; its name comes from the Filipino word "halo" meaning "mix"). The halo-halo was decent, and in truth, I enjoyed it more than the other two items. However, (and I hate to sound repetitive here) it really came across the same way as the previous two dishes - somewhat lacking in zest and flavor. Uninspiring. Unexciting.

On the plus side, the lady running the restaurant is really friendly and calls everyone by their first name (did she take a Dale Carnegie course?) Regular patrons pile in and engage in spirited conversations with her, the way old friends gossip and catch up with each other. I overheard stories of nieces getting married, grandchildren being born, and sons & daughters who grew up eating the food at Gold Ribbon. Obviously, this place has its following.

Would I come back here? Maybe. After all, I still haven't tried their longsilog (same as bansilog, but with longganisa - Filipino sausage - instead of fish) yet. Above all, it's the convenience factor that would lure me back...or maybe I would come back simply because of the friendly, positive vibe I get from this place.

Gold Ribbon
380 S Main St
Milpitas CA 95035

Gold Ribbon Bakeshop & on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Like a Brick Through a Plate Glass Window

There are a number of good ramen places in the Bay Area, and I am so lucky that my absolute favorite one is just a few minutes' drive from my house - Maruichi Ramen in Milpitas.

I am a huge fan of their kuro ramen. "Kuro" means black in Japanese, and their kuro ramen is aptly named. It features a fragrant and richly flavored black broth:

For me the heart and soul of good ramen (and good Vietnamese pho for that matter - but that's another blog post) is the broth. While other ramen places I've tried seem to be more subtle in seasoning their broth, there is nothing subtle or subdued about the aromatic kuro broth. Its strong flavor and texture comes through "like a brick through a plate glass window" (to quote the wizard gadget inventor "Q", from the 1962 James Bond movie "Dr. No", describing the Walther PPK pistol).

The next requirement for me to be absolutely delighted with my ramen is pork - lots of it! Kuro ramen comes with a few slices of chashu pork. While the meat is tender and tasty, there's not enough of it to satisfy the ravenous carnivore within me. So I usually order an extra dose of stewed pork. The stewed pork sports thick, chewy chunks of dark brown meat interspersed with layers of golden fat in between. It is the fat which generates its sweet flavor and aroma - yum! It can't be good for my cholesterol, but whatever...I'll just work it off in the gym ;-)

The icing on the cake for me which rounds out the whole experience is practicing my Japanese reading skills with a copy of Bay Spo (a free local Japanese newspaper, a big stack of which is found by the Maruichi entrance). Having lived a few years in Japan, I can speak, read and write basic Japanese, but I have by no means mastered this complex language. So in addition to perusing the pages filled with news and gossip about the hottest Japanese celebrities and sports stars, occasionally I will practice speaking Japanese with the staff. Unlike a lot of other Japanese restaurants, the staff at Maruichi actually speaks Japanese! I find that really cool.

One time, a Maruichi waitress taught me how to write a word in Kanji. I went home, double-checked it on my Japanese dictionary, and found that what she had taught me was wrong. The next time I went to Maruichi, the same waitress ran up to me and exclaimed "I was wrong!" She said it really bothered her that she had taught me the wrong thing, and kept wondering when I would show up again so she could right the wrong. Now that's cool ;-)

Maruichi Ramen
530 Barber Lane
Milpitas, CA 95035

Maruichi on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 9, 2008


I almost leaped for joy when I saw this sign while walking around in the Great Mall in Milpitas today:

Yes, that's right! Jollibee, the most successful and beloved Filipino restaurant chain, is coming to my home town Milpitas!! I am beside myself with excitement. I've loved Jollibee ever since I was a kid growing up in the Philippines, and I seek it out every time I go back there. I will surely write a review when it opens. For now, I'll just have to try my best to contain my anticipation (it won't be easy, though) ;-)

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Happy Buffet

Asian buffet restaurants abound in the Bay Area. One of the most popular and successful ones is Happy Buffet in Milpitas. I find the success of this place to be quite remarkable. Especially since I remember not too long ago another restaurant stood in the exact same location - a Chinese restaurant with so-so Dim Sum. That restaurant got only modest customer traffic at best, and eventually became history. Enter Happy Buffet, and a dramatically different story unfolded! Happy Buffet quickly gained huge popularity, garnering awards and recognition in major publications like the San Jose Mercury News. This place gets very crowded during peak hours - especially during weekends - with throngs of people lining up outside. I am amazed how two restaurants, operating in the exact location, could get such radically different results. One can still see traces of the previous restaurant's name on the facade:

I thought about the ingredients that make up Happy Buffet's success (and the corresponding lack thereof that caused the previous place's demise):

-Good food (this is Number 1. Without it, nothing else matters).

-Lots of variety - Happy Buffet basically offers Chinese food, with plenty of choices of seafood, meat, vegetables, soup, noodles, and more. In addition, one can get sushi, Hawaiian-style barbecue, salads, and a wide array of fruits and sweets for dessert.

-Clean, well lit, and attractive interiors (in contrast, the previous place looked kind of old and run down inside).

I enjoy whipping up my own tasty concoctions at Happy Buffet, like this one:

Happy Buffet
24 S Abbott Ave
Milpitas CA 95035

Happy Buffet on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 6, 2008

My Favorite Place for Dim Sum

Whenever I visit the King Crab Chinese restaurant in Milpitas, I am met with warm smiles and enthusiastic greetings. I've been coming to this place for years. I know most of the staff, and the service I receive makes me feel like an old friend. No wonder this is one of my favorite destinations for brunch during weekends.

Of course it takes more than just great service to make a good restaurant. The food has to be good too. In this department, King Crab certainly delivers. Some of the Dim Sum delights I enjoyed during a recent visit:

Pork buns - the meat inside is tender and sweet:

Sharkfin dumplings with succulent chunks of pork and shrimp inside:

Vegetable and shrimp dumplings:

Beef balls:

For me, no Dim Sum meal is complete without Chinese broccoli - also known as kai lan. I just love the crunchy texture of this vegetable (when it's cooked right). King Crab's kai lan is crunchy indeed:

After the meal, I chat a little bit with the staff. As an example of how friendly they are, when they noticed my curiosity about these strange creatures:

They enthusiastically explained to me that these animals (which look to me like something out of a sci-fi movie) go by the name geoduck, and that they are good for Japanese-style sashimi, can be combined with tofu to make soup, and can also be served steamed. Hmm...maybe I'll try it next time ;-)

King Crab Restaurant
269 Calaveras Blvd
Milpitas CA 95035

King Crab on Urbanspoon