Soon after the new year, the space that housed Covo Gyro Market is scheduled to open as a Max’s Wine Dive (1482 N. Milwaukee Ave., no phone yet), an outpost in the Houston-based restaurant’s big move outside of Texas.
The founder, Jerry Lasco, gave this (condensed and edited) account of the chain’s birth and genetic makeup.
I was a pilot for 10 years. I flew my last trip on September 10, 2001, and was furloughed from Continental. I decided it was my opportunity to follow my passions and dreams. I went to culinary school, and then I lost my job, and knew I wasn’t going to fly for several years.
I started a little wine bar with barely any food: the Tasting Room. That was in Houston. We did cheese plates. Two employees: myself and my sister-in-law.
“Max’s was the first additional concept we opened. We wanted to venture into the full restaurant deal. We didn’t want to do fine dining. We wanted a place that was a little more like Europe, where wine doesn’t have as much pretense and obstacles.
“We were attracted to the juxtaposition of fried chicken and Champagne. They happen to be a fantastic pairing—Champagne is cold and highly acidic; fried chicken should come out very hot and with plenty of juice and in that juice is some fat. The acidity of the wine cuts through the fat. This pairing goes back to the early 1800s in France. We didn’t invent it.
“Our purpose was to pair wine with regular food—hot dogs with Shiraz from Australia. Just trying to be whimsical. No white tablecloth. Throw in a jukebox that plays Johnny Cash.
“We’ve always hired chefs. They’re chef-driven restaurants. I am not responsible for anything that goes right in that kitchen. We don’t like the chain concept. We don’t have a corporate executive chef.
“On the left side of the menu are the classics. They are at all of the Max’s, and our goal for those is to keep them at a standardized quality. We want that recipe to be standardized.”
In addition to the fried chicken, the classics Lasco mentioned include dishes such as Max ’n Cheese, which combines three cheeses with cavatappi and truffle cream, and Nacho Mama’s Oysters, which tops fried Gulf Coast oysters with aïoli, won ton chips, habanero salsa, and cilantro.
“Dive” to us usually means pretzels and bagged potato chips—guess adding “wine” to it gets you all the way to aïoli.