Disheartened by the recent news of the giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that could contaminate the wetlands of Louisiana’s most southern reaches, we have been finding our attention turned to fond memories of past trips to that area of the country, the landscape, culture and the food which we both adore.
Mrs. M. loves Mr. M. to cook Cajun/Creole dishes for her at home, but we were both very happy to discover Maxie’s Southern Comfort, a little bit of the Deep South in Southeast Wisconsin. Located a block north of I-94 at 68th Street, it was started in the spring of 2007 by Dan Sidner.
Originally from Kearny, Nebraska, Dan went to school at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York to study at the School of Hospitality there. He then moved to Milwaukee in 2004 and founded the restaurant a few years later – so it was not started by some Southern granny, as the name might lead you to think! This is the sequel to the original eatery in Ithaca, NY which specializes in Cajun/Creole food.
Presuming that people up here aren’t all that interested in Southern food, we thought that showing up at around 7:00 p.m. in the middle of the work week would mean that we’d have no problem sliding right in to a table. We were quite surprised to find out that business is so good in this packed place that we would have about a twenty-minute wait at the bar before being seated at a table (that’ll teach us for making such assumptions)! We enjoyed sipping Hurricanes (very strong New Orleans rum-and-punch drinks served in glasses shaped like a Mississippi riverboat’s hurricane lamp) and looking around from the bar at the quirky-homey, Southernish décor with little crystal chandeliers hanging over each table from the big, black ceiling beams, and walls painted red and hung with kitschy, country pop art. Not the slightest hint remains of Gerry O’Brien’s Irish/British grocery and butcher shop that once occupied that building (which we both miss very much).
At the table, Chef and co-owner Joe Muench and Sous Chef Kimberly Pollman make sure everyone starts off with a complimentary basket of a few little squares of their delicate, sweet corn bread and orange-infused butter spread. Fresh and tasty, Mrs. M. thought it was mighty fine indeed while Mr. M., though he did like it, thought it was best suited for birthday candles because it tasted more like cake to him than traditional, Southern corn bread that traditionally has a buttery-baked crust which Southerners love so much. But after two or three Hurricanes at just $6.95 a pop, who cares?
Maxie’s serves a variety of Southern specialties ranging from Texas-style barbeque brisket to the “low-land” cuisine of south-Atlantic states. We both started things off with a cup of Maxie’s gumbo for $4.50. Gumbo is a rich, comfy stew served with white rice on top which originated in the Louisiana Gulf-Coast area. It is the product of European, African and Native-American influences. It is made of many things, such as its name-sake, African okra (“gumbo” is a West-African word for okra), chicken, spicy sausage, seafood and the “trinity” of Louisiana cooking – chopped celery, green pepper and onion. Lots of other ingredients can go in it, too (can you say “garlic?”).
We were absolutely delighted to find that the gumbo served to us at Maxie’s is the rich, dark kind of country gumbo favored by the Cajun culture of Louisiana. We were very surprised when our waiter told us that some past guests to the restaurant from the Gulf South who had the gumbo complained that it was too dark! Maxie’s gets an A+ for their dark, daring gumbo – it is truly the real deal, folks! A big bowl of it is only $13.50.
After our delicious gumbo, Mrs. M. ordered the fried-fish po’ boy that came with a generous portion of waffle fries on the side. A “po’ boy” is the New-Orleans version of a hoagie/submarine sandwich, but it’s made with a very special, light and airy French bread that, curiously, can only be found in and around New Orleans and some bigger U.S. metro areas. The most popular main component of a po’ boy down south is fried seafood, like shrimp or oysters. But other, popular variations contain thinly-sliced roast beef or ham. Fantasizing that perhaps these guys regularly get their hands on that famous bread from New Orleans that somehow funnels its way up to some Chicago bake shops and restaurants, we were disappointed to find out that they just use plain hogie-sandwich bread from anywhere, U.S.A.. But, even so, Mrs. M. thought that it was darned good! Other po’ boy options at Maxie’s feature fried oysters, chicken and blue cheese burger, all ranging in price between $9.95 and $13.95.
Next on Mr. M.’s dinner agenda was Maxie’s jambalaya ($16.95). The word jambalaya comes from the Creole term for ham and rice – “jambon à la ya-ya.” Jambalaya is basically a rice-and-meat, one-pot dish primarily composed of white rice, chicken, sausage, seafood, vegetables (tomatoes and the Louisiana “trinity” noted above) and spices. Recipes for it are as different as each individual person who cooks it. Maxie’s jambalaya is made with nicely-grilled hunks of succulent, spicy andouille sausage, tender blackened chicken meat, perfectly-cooked shrimp with big, juicy pieces of tomato and crisp, chopped vegetables as good as it gets anywhere. And they serve a lot of it – Mr. M. got to take half of it home with him!
Neighboring diners ordered the huge, pulled-pork sandwiches piled sky-high with shredded, barbeque pork and slaw together on the same bun (it smelled so delicious as their waiter brought it out to them!). Those sandwiches come with a side of barbeque beans for $9.95. One of those guests also ordered the shrimp and grits (a half order is $12.50), which is a “low-land” specialty of shrimp and special pork sauce over yellow grits enjoyed in the Carolinas. They told us that it was all very good.
Other “soul-stirrin’” specialties on Maxie’s menu include BBQ beef ribs that come with mac’ n’ cheese for $18.95, their Deluxe Crabcake Platter that comes with slaw, Creole rice and sweet potato fries for $18.95, and pecan-crusted rainbow trout fillets which come with sweet potato fennel hash, arugula salad, roasted apple and citrus sauce for $19.95.
Some unique, vegetarian options range from between $9.95 and $12.95 and include Vegetarian Jambalaya made with smoked tofu, pecans, spinach and red beans in zesty Creole rice, a BBQ Organic Tofu Sandwich topped with creamy slaw, served with Cajun fries and a Portobello Po’ Boy with Cajun mayo, bayou onions and Cajun fries.
Salads offered here are of the typical variety, except that we did note a Texas Pink Grapefruit ‘n Endive Salad with toasted pumpkin seeds, aged bellavitano cheese and citrus vinaigrette for $6.95 – we’ll have to try that next time!
For dessert, we had to try Maxie’s warm bread pudding for $6. Crowned with a generous dollop of vanilla ice cream, one portion was plenty for the two of us. Other dessert options include Key Lime Pie with raspberry sauce ($5.50), Banana Chocolate Coconut Cream Pie made with fresh bananas and toasted coconut ($6.00) and Maxie’s Marquise Cake (chocolate devils food cake with chocolate Marquise, chocolate glaze and raspberry sauce – $6).
Ah, this is Southern cooking all right. If you’re not familiar with Southern cooking, or if you’re a Southern transplant to the Milwaukee area who’s inept in the kitchen, you have to try the food at Maxies!
Maxie’s Southern Comfort
6732 W. Fairview Ave., Milwaukee
Major credit cards accepted.
This is a “first-come-first-served” restaurant – no reservations accepted.
Shrimp/Oyster Po’ Boy recipe – Mrs. M.’s favorite (recipe makes 8 – 10, six-inch sandwiches)
Seasoned Coating (for the seafood):
1½ cups all-purpose, white flour and ½ cup corn meal (finely-ground in coffee grinder), or just 2 cups white flour (use ¾ cup flour & ¼ cup corn meal to coat only two servings)
1½ teaspoon garlic powder (use ¾ tsp. for two servings’ worth)
1½ teaspoon salt (use ¾ tsp. for two servings’ worth)
1 teaspoon gumbo filé (½ tsp. for two servings) – optional
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (¼ tsp. for two) – optional (too hot for some northern taste buds!)
1 bottle (6 oz.) Louisiana hot sauce (for marinating the seafood – use only half a bottle for two servings)
1 lb. (16 oz.) peeled, washed U20-30 size shrimp or 1 pint (16 oz.) canned, drained oysters – or mix 8 oz. of each! (about 14 to 18 shrimp per serving – use an 8-oz. can of oysters for one, big sandwich)
1 – 2 French loaves (French-loaf shaped Ciabatta bread works great), cut into 8 to 10 equal, 5” to 6” sections; slice each section open and leave them “hinged” (and dredge out the center-interiors of both halves a little to make room in them for the oysters and/or shrimp!)
10 oz. shredded lettuce, dill-pickle slices and sliced, Creole tomatoes (may substitute other kinds of tomatoes)
Creole mustard (optional – Zatarain’s is good; if you can’t find any, it’s easy enough to make it with 1 part regular Grey Poupon Dijon mustard and 1 part Gulden’s spicy brown mustard)
Peanut oil (for deep frying)
Heat peanut oil in your fryer to 360° F.
Marinate shrimp and/or oysters in the hot sauce while the oil heats up in the fryer. When ready to cook, dredge the seafood in the coating mix (do the shrimp first). Load the fryer basket up over the sink so that excess coating does not mess up your oil. Fry for only 4 minutes, or until golden brown (it doesn’t take long at all).
“Dressed” = mayo spread on the bottom half of the sandwich, Creole mustard spread on the top, layer the pickles and tomatoes on the bottom bread, fill with the lettuce then top with the fried seafood.
Serve with a big handful of kettle-style potato chips/crisps and ice-cold beer, then Laissez les bons temps rouler!