China Max: A Humble Take-Out Evokes a Famed Temple

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China Max
681 Niagara Falls Blvd., Amherst, NY 14226
Phone: 716.833.8889
Rating:    [learn more]
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"Given the price, the balance of meats to vegetables was a little veggie-heavy, but everything was collectively a little more fresh than what we've been served at China King."

While the Temple of Heaven might not be recognizable to most of patrons of Amherst's China Max, its visage is impossible to miss on the restaurant's door and menu; in fact, it was the sight of this iconic structure that gave us some hope when we paid the take-out restaurant our first visit this week. As the place where Chinese emperors used to pray for good harvests, the temple is one of our favorite destinations in Beijing - recreated as a scale model at Disney's EPCOT Center - and though we weren't exactly praying for our meal here to be a good one, we merely hoped for something better than China King. Not too hard, right?

Our modest hopes were realized. While we still have more to sample here before issuing a rating,* China Max has both a larger menu and generally better food quality on its side: the standard Americanized stuff is there, as is a special section explicitly labeled "American Dishes," but so are a few clusters of less common dishes, including one that had us pretty excited. [Note: On July 7, we revisited China Max and updated this review with a final rating of 2 stars; details are at the end of the prior article.]

We went with a relatively simple testing menu this time, starting with Steamed Dumplings ($4.50) and a bowl of Hot & Sour Soup ($1.75). Due in part to a dipping sauce that was heavier on rice vinegar and lighter on soy than we're accustomed to, the dumplings were somewhat different than we expected; they also had wrappers that could have stood to be a little more delicate and a little less chewy. By contrast, the soup was thinner but otherwise fresh, and prepared vegetarian rather than with the standard pork. Neither appetizer blew us away, but they weren't bad.

Entrees were somewhat varied but generally good. The one that really interested us was listed on the menu as Hot & Spicy Shredded Beef ($9), and confirmed at the counter to be a "crispy" dish - this had us hoping for something like Ming Teh's dry-fried spicy beef strips, but we were told that the beef here wasn't shredded or otherwise sliced matchstick thin. The menu, we were told, was a first printing and still in transition. What arrived had nothing in common with the Ming Teh item save for the presence of beef: this plate was a layer of fine meat mixed with a layer of sliced onions and green peppers, all in a thick orange sauce that was mildly spicy and decidedly citric. There was nothing crispy in here, and we could have certainly had the same dish at virtually any Chinese take-out in town, but it was pretty good nonetheless.

We had ordered that dish as a contrast with the Happy Family ($11), but they turned out to be far closer to one another than we'd expected. China Max's version of Happy Family was fairly typical, with large slices of pork alongside pieces of chicken, beef, crab meat and shrimp in a thickened brown sauce, and though none of the individual meat items was a standout, they were all fine - the shrimp was buried under the pile but the pieces were larger than they could have been. Given the price, the balance of meats to vegetables was a little veggie-heavy, but everything was collectively at least a little more fresh than what we've been served at China King. We actually enjoyed eating the broccoli, baby corn, and green peppers here, leaving the bok choy and carrots mostly untouched.

Last but not least in the entree selection was a healthy dish, Rainbow Seafood ($11), steamed snowpeas with shrimp, scallops, artificial crab, and cashews - the latter item ordered as an add-on, and initially forgotten when the plate was delivered. It was remedied quickly on request. Served with a brown sauce on the side, this was a typical steamed plate in the sense that the flavors weren't enhanced and the plate was heavier on veggies than meats, but once again, the items were fresh and there was enough seafood to sate us.

Before we left, we noted that China Max offered a small selection of bubble teas - nine flavors of sweetened teas loaded with large tapioca balls and served with oversized sipping straws. Since the tapioca's hard to screw up, the flavors, portions, and temperatures of the teas are the only major variables in making bubble tea good or bad. Given relatively few flavors to choose from, we sampled the regular-sized Lychee and large-sized Honey versions ($2.65/$3.50), finding the former to be pretty close to good, while the latter was too light and bland. Though both were ordered cold, neither was chilled enough, but both were packed with tapioca balls.

As we prefer to sample a more representative subset of a restaurant's menu before issuing a rating, the jury's still out on where exactly China Max will wind up in stars. What we've tried thus far has been somewhere between decent and good in quality, reasonably priced, and a little underwhelming on presentation - basically standard take-out fare. We'll update this review when we've had the opportunity to do a broader sweep of China Max's options.

Updated July 7, 2009: On a subsequent visit to China Max, our prior observations were essentially confirmed: this is a decent Chinese restaurant run by nice people. This time, we started by sampling the House Special Soup ($5.25), a two-person portion of chicken broth base with large pieces of chicken, relatively few pieces of pork, four or five shrimp, and a bunch of standard vegetables - snow peas, broccoli, mushrooms, and celery. Name aside, it wasn't very special, far more vegetables than meat and not particularly generous in overall quantity.

Another two dishes, the Shrimp with Black Bean Sauce ($5 small, $9.25 large) and Moo Shu Beef ($8.25), were what we'd call roughly par for the course. We went with the small portion of Shrimp, which contained a total of four very large and truly tasty shrimp, plus another overwhelming portion of vegetables - here peppers, carrots, lots and lots of onions, and baby corn - and a nice enough black bean sauce that was memorable only for its otherwise reddish color, while lacking in the typical sauce's characteristic bitterness. By comparison, the Moo Shu Beef - a typically cabbage-heavy dish with mushrooms, scallions, and meat mixed in - surprised us by coming with thin, square flour wraps rather than the typical round crepe-like "pancakes" that often accompany the dish in other restaurants. Though a little rubbery, the square wraps were a nice change that reminded us of ones we'd had in China years ago, and went well with the included hoisin sauce. The dish was otherwise bland and extremely cabbage heavy; beef was reasonably proportioned for the price and better than what surrounded it. One additional entree, a steamed vegetable dish, was custom-made to order and exactly as expected.

Overall, China Max is a convenient neighborhood Chinese restaurant, but not one that we'd rush back again to visit. Though a superior pick to the China Kings we've visited, the nearby Red Pepper is nearby and a notch better for Chinese, with a considerably larger menu. Consider China Max if budget pricing and its location appeal particularly to your needs.

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