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December 25, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter XII - Max's

Dominic Armato
Well, it had to come to a close sooner or later, I suppose.

For the final chapter in the Beef-Off, we swing way up north to Max's. Appearance-wise, Max's is one of the more colorful locales. A rather chipper looking cow in shades adorns the sign out front (further bolstering my theory that all of my foodstuffs are positively thrilled to be eaten by me), and he's surrounded by a small herd of welded metal minions. The interior walls are adorned with murals of the city, there are five or six tables plus enough counter space and stools to seat 20-30 in cozy fashion, and a couple of televisions that I suspect are usually tuned to something sports related. It's a pretty extensive menu, with the beef and beef-related items only composing a small section.

Dominic Armato
In fact, one entry in particular caught my eye and forced me to deviate from the Beef-Off standard. I ordered the usual beef, sweet, hot and dipped, but instead of a regular order of fries I went with Max's signature "ghetto fries." They sound almost unholy. The potatoes themselves are nothing to get excited about, but they're topped with a formidable combination of Italian beef gravy, Max's house giardiniera, sweet barbecue sauce, chopped raw onion and Merkt's cheddar sauce. They have a certain kind of kitchen sink charm, but this isn't a concoction that sells purely because it's borderline obscene. The ghetto fries are surprisingly good... a great balance of salty, sweet and spicy. Unfortunately for Max's, the awesomeness of the fries doesn't figure into the Beef-Off.

Dominic Armato
Max's beef is somewhat underwhelming, though it has a couple of nice touches. The juice's character is warm and mellow, if a little timid, and atop every table sits a large tub of the house giardiniera, which is a bold and tasty one. It's very tart, not nearly as spicy as you'd expect given the color, it's chock full of tasty vegetables, and it's abundant. The deep red-orange oil contains chunks of pickled peppers, celery, carrots, red bell peppers and even the occasional olive. But these high points weren't enough to save a beef that had some problems. The sweet peppers were largely symbolic and not very flavorful, a couple small chunks of yellow and two small strips of green. But most troubling was the beef itself, which was overcooked, dry and fairly tough. While I wouldn't call it offensive, there wasn't anything fresh about it. The late lunch hour may have been partially responsible, but the beef should never be allowed to sit in the juice too long before serving, and I suspect mine was. It's too bad... I felt like there was a better beef trapped in there.

So, to round out the standings, I'm going to slot Max's below the competent but underwhelming Jay's and above the flat Roma's. My suspicion that I may have gotten a bad sandwich would probably have been enough to bring me back, but the ghetto fries absolutely cemented a return visit. The updated standings are below, but expect a full wrap-up shortly for endless caveats!

Max's Famous Italian Beef
5754 N. Western Ave.
Chicago, IL 60659
773-989-8200
1) Chickie's
2) Johnnie's
3) Uncle Johnny's
4) Pop's
5) Mr. Beef
6) Bostons
7) Tore's
8) Portillo's
9) Jay's
10) Max's
11) Roma's
12) Al's

Addendum: The final Beef-Off results and wrapup can be found in The Year In Beef.

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