Fried Chicken, for the (Filipino) Soul
Ironically enough, the first time I really experienced a Max’s Restaurant fried chicken meal was when I was 18 years old, in Glendale, California. Yes, I did grow up in Manila. No, I didn’t live under a rock. In the ’90s, it was just that my family gravitated towards other spots like Whistlestop with its 24-hour breakfasts, and Racks with its baby back ribs. So when I had my first taste of Max’s iconic chicken—its crisp skin and juicy meat paired with sweet potato fries and that ubiquitous condiment mix of banana ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and hot sauce—I was instantly smitten.
It turns out that 71 years ago, American soldiers felt the same way, but their first Max’s fried chicken experience was in a home along Scout Tuazon street in Quezon City. The year was 1945; Maximo Gimenez (or Max, as his newfound American friends fondly called him) and his niece Ruby Trota lived in a family compound across the base camp and would regularly invite American troops over for food and drinks. Ruby would whip up familiar Western dishes, like steak and fried chicken, eventually coming up with a special fried chicken recipe that was an instant hit. A perfect chicken recipe combined with Ruby’s never-ending generosity and first-rate hospitality was what initially launched Max’s Restaurant decades ago, and it’s what keeps it going today.
“Our lola was an incredibly generous host and it was through food that she was able to make people happy,” says Jim T. Fuentebella, one out of the seven grandkids who sit on the board of directors for the expanding Max’s Group—which, it should be noted, has rapidly grown to include 13 different brands (including both Filipino chains like Dencio’s and American stalwarts such as Krispy Kreme and Jamba Juice).
“That’s the soul of what defined her.” And the values that defined Ruby Trota are what continue to drive the third generation of Trotas, as they manage to preserve their family culture and tradition despite the change in dynamics—especially after the group became a publicly-traded company in 2014. Jim’s brother, Dave T. Fuentebella, expounds on the importance of family members sharing similar values. “We take trips every year, all of us cousins, and we spend time together eating, mostly,” shares Dave. “This is really part of making it work in the boardroom. Not all genius ideas happen in the office. The fact that we actually get along helps resolve things faster. We’re able to level up to the next idea.” The ability to separate oneself from the myriad roles each person plays—whether it’s the role of family member, board member, or a specific departmental role within the organization—greatly helps when making board-level decisions. And as Jim and Dave claim, everything they do stems from Nanay Ruby. Would it be something she would do? Would it be something she would be proud of? This driving force pushes the third generation to continue paying tribute to their beloved grandmother, mainly by treating customers the same way she would. Max’s success can only be attributed to its pure intent of being a generous host—the same way Nanay Ruby was.
Throughout Max’s seven decades of existence, they have slowly done their part in putting Filipino food on the global map. With the first foreign branch opening in 1982 in San Francisco, California, to their more recent restaurant openings in the Middle East, their sarap-to-the-bones fried chicken has reached an even wider audience. More recently, Max’s has even gained recognition from the likes of Los Angeles-based Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold, who added Max’s to his list of favorite Asian fried chicken dishes, calling it “lightly vinegary, beautifully crisp” while emphasizing the importance of eating it with banana ketchup. This alone is a big deal.
“Our goal [when opening restaurants abroad] was to redefine Filipino cuisine. That’s why when you eat at Max’s restaurants abroad you’ll see signs that say ‘Cuisine of the Philippines’ instead of ‘The House that Fried Chicken Built,’ which is too vague for the market overseas,” explains Jim. The draw will always be the winning fried chicken and sweet potato fries, but once people who are unfamiliar with the Max’s brand start trickling into the restaurant they’ll find other Filipino dishes worth loving, too. “All we need is a tipping point,” adds Jim. “Our fried chicken isn’t an acquired taste. It’s tasty and people enjoy it. Once people try it, then start opening themselves up to other Filipino dishes, an awareness for Filipino cuisine will be raised.”
Thinking back to my first dining experience at Max’s in Glendale when I was a homesick college student reinforced the notion that Max’s is synonymous to a true Filipino dining experience. From the sincere hospitality, to the comforting lutong bahay flavors of the dishes—and that stellar fried chicken, of course—I felt like I was home. It’s interesting to see how things come full circle for a homegrown establishment like Max’s Restaurant. What started out as pure generosity towards people from the United States has now turned into a growing food empire that serves Filipinos all over the world—and gaining international recognition to boot.
So here, an ode to Max’s iconic Original Classic Fried Chicken. Thank you for being a reliable constant. Thank you for always being there, not only for people who crave for a taste of home, but for people who crave comfort in a home away from home. Thank you for bringing global awareness to our wonderful country, proving that the Philippines is more than just balut or a mish-mash of turo-turo dishes. And of course, thank you Nanay Ruby, for allowing us Filipinos to continuously enjoy this delicious ride.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.