Max Gonzalez, owner of Max's Empanadas on 313 S. High St.,… (Algerina Perna/Baltimore…)
There has been an Indian restaurant on Little Italy's main street for years, so why not a gourmet Argentine carryout and coffeehouse? Max's Empanadas moved into a storefront location where a couple of Italian delis have come and gone, and it looks to be off to a good start. It's a real charmer.
You may recognize the enterprising owner, Max Gonzalez, not only from local farmers' markets, where he sells his pastries, empanadas and chimichurri sauce, but also from the area's tango scene, for which he's both a promoter and teacher.
For me, the promising thing about Max's is the cafe-style area beyond the gourmet counter - a row of stools at a ledge and a grouping of tables are accessibly chic, with cheerful works of art on the butterscotch walls. There isn't a place in Little Italy, and not really one in neighboring Harbor East, that I'd feel as comfortable using at 3 p.m. for reading a book over coffee, at 7 p.m. for a light dinner and at 11 p.m. for dessert and a glass of Argentine wine. It helps a lot that the management here has good taste in music.
If you approach Max's this way, as a potential second living room, I think you'll enjoy grazing on the basic menu of empanadas and side salads. If you go just for the food, I don't think you'll exactly be disappointed - the food here is wholesome and satisfying - but I don't know that you'd rush back across town for it. The house specialty, lovely Argentine-style empanadas, do make for a filling savory snack, or even a meal if you combine one or two of them with a salad.
There are five varieties here - beef, chicken, spinach, vegetable, and ham and cheese - all made from scratch. They're all solid, and the version with chicken is especially impressive, its filling tender and juicy. I think I maybe would fall in love with them if I discovered them in a street cart, and if they cost less. I think $3.15 each is a little high, even considering the quality of ingredients.
The side dishes are agreeable, too, especially the simple Argentine potato salad, dressed with parsley, olive oil and salt, and perfectly firm. The presence of hard-boiled egg was the noteworthy element in both the beet salad with honeyed walnuts and the carrot salad, which was a little waterlogged on the day we tried it. The standout side dish is the silky smooth black bean hummus, served with toasted pita points and crunchy vegetables. Max's offers panini on its menu, but they don't work very well - the version with turkey includes, unexpectedly, American-style cheese, and the Argentine caprese needs fresher mozzarella and tomatoes to work.
I got a better feel for the food's potential from the daily special - and the only thing you'd think of as an entree: a lightly breaded and zesty version of a popular Argentine standby, chicken Milanese, which featured a coarsely chopped tomato-and-parsley topping in place of a heavy tomato sauce. This was accompanied by a chimichurri-dressed field salad.
If there is food to get excited about at Max's, it's on the dessert list, delectable confections like the house's version of the alfajore, here the custardy version made with cornstarch, and especially amazing tarts made with lemon ricotta or dulce de leche and coconut. Also quite good are the peanut butter cookies and the tea cakes made from zucchini, banana and butternut squash, which don't have much to do with Argentina but would make perfect midafternoon snacks.
I do think Max's will benefit from some fine-tuning. It will be interesting to watch what happens. Expanding the menu to include a few more entrees would seem to make sense, and so would staying open for dessert later on weeknights, but only if the staff can manage it. None of this will be easy, but with a project this promising, it might be worth it.
Venue info: Max's Empanadas
Where: 313 S. High St., Little Italy
Hours: 10 a.m.-8p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-1:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday Credit cards: Master Card, Visa, AMEX
Outstanding: Good: Fair or uneven: Poor:
On the menu
•Empanadas - $3.15
•Primavera salad - $3.15
•Naranja salad - 3.69
•Potato salad - $3.50
•Rojo salad - $5.89
•Black bean hummus - $5.50
•Chicken Milanese with side salad - $9.49
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