The first time I tried Mak Chin's food, I never set foot in the place. I called in an order and had my dining companion pick it up. For starters, we got the chicken lettuce wraps -- minced chicken cooked with ginger, jicama and celery. You spoon the hot meat onto cold iceberg leaves and eat them like tacos. The original Chinese version was made with minced squab, but Americans aren't much on eating pigeons. So the chopped chicken variation has become common in Chinese restaurants. Mak Chin's version replaces the usual water chestnuts with jicama. We boosted the heat level at home with some Rooster brand sriracha sauce.
We also tried the Thai chicken wings, which were tasty but not very spicy. For entrées, we tried the Mandarin orange beef, which combined both orange peel and mandarin orange sections with well-done beef. It was a little on the sweet side, and at $11, the portion wasn't very impressive. We also got Pad Thai, a well-tossed but bland bowl of rice noodles, and the equally underwhelming Thai curry with chicken. If a theme was emerging, it was that the food at Mak Chin's was uniformly underseasoned.
I thought of the place as a hometown version of Pei Wei. After all, the menu was a dead ringer for Pei Wei's -- in appearance, in the names of the categories and in the "signature" entrées.
Then I showed up for lunch on a weekday afternoon. The fast-casual dining room, which is furnished with bamboo-patterned Formica tables and decorated with Asian magazine ads, was half full of customers and throbbing with loud Asian techno music. It was a little wilder than your average suburban Pei Wei's. The bar side of the building was dark and empty.
When I ordered hot tea, I was asked to pick a flavor from a list of teas on a chalkboard. I made a joke about a blend called "Evening in Houston." Was that scented with petroleum by-products? The woman behind the cash register got all serious and told me it was her favorite. Next thing I knew, she was insisting that I sniff the open canister. "Evening in Houston" was a pungent herb blend with lots of chamomile.
Okay, okay, it was just lovely. But I got jasmine instead. The teas come from Katz's Coffee, the local Houston coffee sold at the Midtown Farmer's Market. He has branched out into the tea business, and Mak Chin's is evidently quite proud to serve his teas. (I'll have a cup of "Morning in Pasadena," please.)
My lunchmate and I ordered lunch specials from a blackboard above the walk-up counter. I got wok-seared rice noodles with beef for $8. (They cost $11 at dinnertime.) My lunchmate got the "seven-flavored delight" with chicken for $7.50. (That's $10 at night.) While we waited, I filled a plate with kimchee and excellent house-made sweet-and-sour pickles from the condiment bar.
Mak Chin's borrowed the "flavor oasis" concept from Café Express, only instead of the Mediterranean add-ons of parmesan, olives and breadsticks, Mak Chin's condiment bar features several varieties of hot sauce, minced jalapeños, kimchee, pickles, mustard, cilantro and chopped ginger. With the right amount of this stuff, you can make your food as wild as you like it. Now I was starting to think of Mak Chin's as a cross between Pei Wei and Café Express.
I spooned some extra minced jalapeño and ginger from the condiment bar over my thick rice noodles and doused them with chile oil. My tablemate's "seven-flavored delight" didn't need much in the way of chiles; it was a blend of white meat chicken with snow peas, bamboo shoots, and green and white onions, and it already contained a lot of sliced red and green jalapeños.
Both dishes were much spicier, and much more flavorful, than the stuff we had picked up for dinner.
On a happy hour visit to Mak Chin's, the place had a completely different atmosphere. The fast-casual dining room wasn't pulsing with techno music anymore. In fact, it was dead quiet and completely deserted. Now, the only inhabitants were sitting on the bar side of the restaurant. House cocktails are $5 during happy hour, which is 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays.
The comfy lounge is furnished with couches and overstuffed easy chairs and decorated with cool-looking antique graphics of Asian nudes. There's a multicolored ceramic tile floor, a lipstick-red and shiny-black color scheme, and easy-on-the-eyes lighting.
We sat at a stool table by the bar, and I asked for the house special margarita. The guy behind the bar told me the restaurant didn't serve margaritas. So I pointed to the "Miso Hornitos Margarita" on the cocktail list, which he read with great interest. Eventually, the befuddled man was pushed out of the way by a young woman who began pouring liquors. She appeared to be an actual bartender.
In the end, there wasn't anything special about the drink except for the clever name. It was just a Hornitos tequila and Cointreau marg in a tall glass with ice. My happy hour companion got a tropical sangria made with red wine, lychee juice and pineapple juice that was a little more interesting.
We ordered the bacon-wrapped egg roll appetizer. The egg rolls were cut on the diagonal and served on a little lettuce with the old-fashioned accompaniments of sweet duck sauce and hot mustard. The sweet-and-sour pickles from the condiment bar that we ate along with them were the best things on the plate.
We also got the salt-and-pepper chicken strips. They had a crunchy batter that was topped with a red pepper garnish. The dish reminded me of the fried cuttlefish appetizer I often get in Vietnamese restaurants -- only with boneless, skinless chicken breast instead of cuttlefish.
My cocktail companion talked me into trying the sweet-and-sour shrimp. He had it on a previous visit and loved it. I don't know why I listened to him. I haven't ordered a sweet-and-sour dish since I was 12. I had to admit it was probably the best sweet-and-sour dish I had ever eaten -- but that isn't saying much. I remember sweet-and-sour sauce tasting like orange marmalade thickened with cornstarch. At Mak Chin's, there was only a mildly objectionable sweet coating on the large shrimp, which were served with chunks of mango and vegetables. With the help of another bottle of sriracha sauce, I managed to choke it down. When we finished our cocktails and left, there still wasn't anybody in the restaurant.
Mak Chin's really is two different places. It's a great walk-up counter restaurant where you can get some great, fast, pan-Asian food at lunchtime. And it's a cool bar for drinks and appetizers, especially on Thursday or Friday nights, when there's a decent crowd. But if you stop by for takeout in the evening, I suggest you load up on hot sauce and chiles at the condiment bar. Just in case.