I have a good Cambridge Audio dealer in Milwaukee and I wanted to reward them one evening a few weeks ago with a nice meal at a restaurant of their choice. They've turned me on to a number of great restaurants - and equally great dive bars - in the Milwaukee area over the years. They proposed going to a west side Cajun restaurant that's been open for about three years called Maxie's Southern Comfort. I was not familiar with Maxie's - Crawdaddy's was probably the best known Cajun restaurant in the great Milwaukee area - but I'm always up for finding a new Cajun restaurant to try.
Maxie's Southern Comfort is located just off Interstate 94 at the 68th St. exit, just west of Miller Park (see map). This is actually the second location for Maxie's - the other location is actually in far off Ithaca, NY. (Click here to see the Ithaca Maxie's web site.)
Maxie's is the brain child of Chick and Dewi Evans, an earthy couple who opened their Ithaca location in 1999. Chick and a good friend, Dan Sidner, a Milwaukee-native, graduated from Cornell University in the 1980's. Both went on to work in restaurants after school - Chick worked for the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant corporation as well as for restaurants in New Mexico and Colorado, while Dan's restaurant journeys took him to North Carolina, Texas and Washington State running high-end restaurants.
From 1997 to 2003, Dan ran a high-end Italian restaurant in the Vail area before moving back to Wisconsin. Joining forces with the Evans, Sidner and his wife, Allison, decided to bring Maxie's Southern Comfort to Milwaukee and bought what was an old neighborhood meat market in Wauwautosa. They hired Joe Muench - a veteran chef in the Milwaukee area - as the executive chef, and Sally (Sal) Anschuetz as their restaurant manager and they opened the doors in 2007.
Maxie's Southern Comfort is more than just a Cajun restaurant. They also specialize in Carolina "low country" cuisine as well as Southern-style barbecue offerings. Their menu is a diverse sampling of those cuisines along with a few contemporary offerings and some vegetarian items, as well. Maxie's also has an ever-changing wine and libation list that includes seasonal beers served on tap. One of the beers they had on tap was Bell's Oberon wheat ale. I'm not big on wheat beer, but I do like the Bell's Oberon in the summertime.
It was around 7:30 p.m. when we got into Maxie's. A large parking lot is situated across the street from the restaurant and the neighborhood looks like it was once a thriving little area. Just to the east of Maxie's are a couple of neighborhood dive bars the guys pointed out to me. "I've spent many a night in both of those places," one of my guests told me.
They had reservations for four in advance of our dinner - one of the guys ended up that he couldn't make the dinner. I'm glad they did make reservations because the place was packed. We were seated at a table right next to the bar and up against the west wall of the restaurant. With a wood-beamed ceiling and hard floors, the place was very loud. While it was difficult to carry on a conversation, it wasn't impossible.
Our waitress showed up with a "shadow" waitress - a newbie hire who was learning the ropes of working at Maxie's. She got our drink order - I had to have a Bell's Oberon, one of the other guys got the same, while the other just got an ice-tea for the moment. While Maxie's Southern Comfort did have a nice wine list, I've never been big on drinking wine with Southern or Cajun cuisine.
While we looked at the menu, our waitress told us they had a couple specials that evening - one was blackened catfish special and the other was a slow-cooked beef brisket served with Maxie's homemade barbecue sauce. I was intrigued by the brisket, but I was also looking at some of the Cajun items they had on the menu.
One of my guests asked, "Do you like oysters?" I told him I did. He said, "They have a great selection of oysters here." And, indeed, they did. They had oysters from the Pacific Northwest, New England and Canadian Maritime regions. We decided to get a couple dozen oysters on the half-shells - one dozen Rhode Island oysters and one dozen Maine oysters. Actually, the Rhode Island oysters were smaller and a little salty -but still good. The Maine oysters were big, meaty and had a great taste to them. And the oysters were served with a cup of dark vinegar - something I've never tried with oysters before. It was an interesting taste compared to the usual horseradish/Tabasco sauce I use on my oysters.
When it came down to ordering dinner, I was really torn between the brisket special, the blackened-seared ahi tuna, and the jambalaya. I told our waitress, "I'm having trouble here. I really want to try the brisket, but the jambalaya is just yelling at me. Is there a way that I can get a sample of the brisket?" She said she would have to check. She came back in a little bit and she said, "Yeah, we can get you a sample, but there would be an upcharge." I told her that was fine. And for good measure, I got a cup of the gumbo to try, as well.
One of the guys got Maxie's grits and shrimp, a half-order for $13.95. He got a dinner salad to tide him over as he only had a couple three of the oysters. "Not much of an oyster guy," he said. My other guest ended up getting the blackened catfish special.
A few moments later, the waitress brought out the gumbo, salad and the brisket sampler. Well, the brisket sampler was more than a sampler - it was a heaping plate of pulled beef brisket swimming in their homemade sauce. It was way more than I wanted, so I shared it with the other guys. It was OK, not exactly the best I've ever had, but it was good. The sauce was thick and smoky in flavor and the meat was a little tough. We all agreed we were glad we didn't get the brisket dinner. Then again, as one of the guys pointed out, as large as the amount of brisket that we got on the sampler plate was, we may have gotten the dinner. I never did check to see what they charged us for the "sample."
My gumbo was much better. Large chunks of chicken and andoullie sausage were prevalent in the gumbo and while they advertised that it had crawfish in the gumbo, I don't know if I actually came across any crawfish meat. But it was thick and tasty and with a little bit of Tabasco added it had a nice kick to the taste.
A while later, our main entrees showed up. I had a heaping plate of jambalaya - much more than I knew I could finish. But it had a lot shrimp, andoullie and chicken mixed in with the rice and the creole sauce. On its own, it had a lot of zip to the taste. But with more Tabasco to kick it up a notch, I really liked the jambalaya.
The guy who got the grits and shrimp was lucky that he got the half-order. It was almost too much for him to eat. He said, "My wife and I can hardly eat a whole order of grits and shrimp, so I knew that I wouldn't have any chance at eating a whole plate."
And my guest who ordered the blackened catfish said it was great, as always. "I live about four blocks from here and my girlfriend and I walk up here all the time," he said. "I've had this catfish before and it's consistently very good."
After a very good and satisfying dinner for all three of us, the two waitresses tried to tempt us with some dessert offerings. I was too stuffed - as I initially predicted I couldn't finish my whole jambalaya dinner - but I did propose looking over the list of Scotch for a night cap. We all decided to each get a snifter of The Balvenie 12 year single malt to finish off the evening. It was a great end to a very good meal.
While I thought the brisket was average, I was still happy I got a taste. But I will say the gumbo and the jambalaya at Maxie's Southern Comfort were well above average compared to other places I've tried. I think the overall experience at Maxie's was also well above average - I guess you could call it as high-end Southern cooking. The service was very good, especially with two waitresses helping us out. While the dining room was sort of loud, it was still manageable. And the food was very good. That's what I like about these guys in Milwaukee - they turned me on to another great restaurant in the city.