NOTE: In March, 2010, Max and Fran Montano entered into a lease to buy agreement with an enthusiastic owner who continued to use the recipes which made Mad Max’s the very best barbecue in the Albuquerque area. By September, 2010 the restaurant was closed. Max and Fran will continue competing in competitions throughout the region and will also cater events. They will be missed as much for their warmth and great humor as for their outstanding barbecue.
Since the discovery of fire, man has viewed his domain as the great outdoors. The outdoors is from where man brought home the day’s victuals for early woman to prepare. As the centuries progressed, descendents of troglodytic man (many of whom haven’t evolved much) have perceived cooking as a feminine affectation, taunting any other man who deigned to acquire culinary skills.
In 1952, George Stephen invented the original Weber kettle grill and with his innovative design, sparked a backyard revolution that transformed man. As a result of the Weber grill, the XY chromosome complement was no longer a handicap (or more accurately, an excuse) for men throughout the world when it came to preparing meals for their families. With Stephen’s invention, grilling outdoors was seen by man as an extension of his manly domain. Not surprisingly, man didn’t consider cooking outdoors as a liberating way to explore a “feminine side” he long denied.
Today, backyard grilling is an year-round phenomenon plied by men attired with aprons emblazoned with the words “Kiss the Chef” and wielding the tools (which, in the kitchen would be called utensils) of their backyard domain. “Real” men still see cooking as woman’s work. Grilling is another matter. Man rationalizes that since the dawn of time, only he has had domain over fire while outdoors. The Weber grill made it possible for men lacking in any culinary skill (unless you consider eating a culinary skill) whatsoever to prepare edible–even tasty grilled food.
By nature competitive, man needed an arena in which he can display his mastery of the flame. That’s how competitive barbecue came about. Today, there are more than 130 sanctioned barbecue competitions across the fruited plain.
In competition barbecue, contestants (and not necessarily all testosterone-laden) vie for prize money sometimes reaching into thousands of dollars. Competitors prepare one or more item–beef brisket, pork ribs, chicken, sausage and sauces–to be judged on a variety of criteria.
Barbecue competition usually includes entertainment and sometimes fireworks, midway carnivals, beverage tents and a host of other family-friendly events. Competitions are generally a Chamber of Commerce dream, bringing barbecue fanatics, competitors and their money from miles around.
Since 2004, Rio Rancho has hosted the New Mexico Pork & Brew barbecue state championship, an event sanctioned by the prestigious Kansas City Barbecue Society whose mission it is to “celebrate, teach, preserve and promote barbecue as a culinary technique, sport and art form.”
The Pork & Brew event has truly brought outstanding barbecue to New Mexico. I know what you’re thinking–outstanding barbecue in New Mexico is an oxymoron. It’s almost as rare as say, green chile stew in Maine and clam bakes in Montana.
With but a handful of exceptions (Sugar’s, Josh’s and Powdrell’s) I thought so, too, until partaking of the sensational smoky meats at the Pork & Brew competition. Now I’m an unabashed shill for this annual event where, at least once a year, it’s possible to partake of porcine perfection, lip-smacking beef, mouth-watering chicken, delectable sausage–all imbued with flavors generated by low and slow smoke under the watchful eyes of fire masters.
Maybe it’s the combination of hot sun, long queues and the olfactory-arousing aromas with their irresistible siren’s call, but I truly believe the barbecue served during competition is unrivaled. No barbecue restaurant can hope to approach the outdoors experience and none can match the quality of outstanding competition barbecue.
Like most of the weekend warrior competitors at barbecue competitions, Corrales resident Max Montano “cut his teeth” in his back yard with his very own Weber grill. Family and guests fortunate enough to be invited to one of his backyard barbecues encouraged him to enter the competitive barbecue circuit, so proficient is his prowess at the pit.
Two years of competitive barbecue has validated the opinion of everyone familiar with Max’s culinary skills. He’s placed at every competition he’s entered, in most cases in several categories. Some seasoned veterans go years without ever placing while Max totes trophies and ribbons home every time, including from Rio Rancho’s Pork & Brew.
With the sobriquet “Mad Max” on his portable competition smoker, he took it a step beyond competition barbecue in February, 2008 when he launched Mad Max’s BBQ in Rio Rancho.
Because of requisite city inspections Max had to wait more than a month before taking his business indoors into the tiny, time-worn building that previously housed Cazuela’s Mexican Grill. He moved indoors on March 20th, 2008 after passing the white-glove going-over from the fire marshal’s office.
In the interim, he plied his business outdoors using a concession trailer which he parked in front of the building destined to be his restaurant. His portable competition smoker was stationed next to the trailer.
My inaugural visit to Mad Max’s came on the day before he got the fire marshal’s blessing to open. I was blown away. It was immediately obvious why he is earning awards in barbecue competitions. Mad Max knows barbecue!
Now, it’s one thing to prepare out-of-this-world barbecue outdoors. It’s another to bring that smoke-imbued greatness indoors. Several winners of the world barbecue championships in Memphis, Tennessee have launched restaurants in which their barbecue just isn’t as good as the ‘cue they prepare during competition when they baby-sit their smoke all night long.
My second visit to Mad Max’s transpired a day after my first, the result of not being able to get the great taste of his barbecue out of my mind. This visit was on the day the fire marshal cleared the way for Max to move his business indoors. It would be a good test as to whether or not Max’s barbecue could pass muster indoors. It does–and then some! This is the Albuquerque metropolitan area barbecue restaurant I’ve been waiting for as evidenced by four visits during its first two weeks in business.
Now that he’s finally indoors, Max will tell you that the restaurant is his wife’s domain. He’ll joke that it’s got his name on it because “Mad Fran” just doesn’t sound right. He also kids that Fran won’t share the recipe for the restaurant’s sauce, but only he knows the formula for the eight secret ingredient rub.
Max’s indoor smoker (pictured above left) is well-seasoned. It’s got the type of aroma you might want to bottle and sell to men like me who would use it in lieu of aftershave. Lucky the meats that enter this smoker!
Aside from making the smoke do his bidding, one of the secrets to Max’s barbecue is his eight ingredient rub. The flavors it imparts coalesce beautifully with the light and fragrant smoke generated by apple and fruit woods. The smoke is subtle and sweet, wholly unlike the astringent smoke you might find in barbecue in which mesquite or even hickory are used.
The sauce is also wonderful and you’ll applaud the fact that it’s served in small plastic containers instead of being slathered on thickly like a couple of local barbecue restaurant favorites do (perhaps to mask the flavor of inferior smoking). Max’s, or rather, Fran’s sauce, is more sweet than it is tangy and it also packs just a hint of piquancy. It’s somewhere between thick and thin and it’s terrific.
So, too, is the barbecue. Smoked sandwiches (your choice of pork, brisket, sausage or carne adovada) are served on a bolillo bread roll. Each sandwich is engorged with deliciousness, almost enough meat to make a second sandwich altogether.
There is no competition barbecue category specifically for smoked carne adovada, but Max’s carne adovada has earned awards in the “anything else” category. It’s a winner! The carne is moist and redolent with just a hint of smoke. It’s shredded into tender pieces and is slathered with pure, unadulterated New Mexican red chile with nary a hint of cumin. This is terrific carne adovada and it makes a great sandwich option.
Mad Max’s brisket sandwich will also imprint itself on your taste buds. It will make them very happy. This brisket isn’t sliced; it’s shredded into long, tender strands of beauteous beef. A handful of a sandwich, it serves as a wonderful canvas for Fran’s terrific barbecue sauce, but with or without sauce, it’s an excellent sandwich.
If you’re not in the mood for sandwiches, try a two-meat Mad Max’s plate with at least a couple of sides. It’s comes with about a pound of meat.
The shredded pork is reminiscent of the pork once proffered at the long defunct Johnny Ray’s which I consider the very best barbecue I’ve had in New Mexico. The brisket is sliced thin. It is tender and has the discernable smoke ring aficionados salute.
Other meat options include smoky adovada, beef sausage, hot link or chicken thighs. The sausage and hot link are long and thick with the hot link packing much more punch and flavor.
Unlike some barbecue restaurants, Max actually serves worthy accompaniment to his meat offerings. He offers several sides–baked beans, a German potato salad and coleslaw–and all are wonderful.
The baked beans are without a doubt the best in the Duke City area. They’re the type of beans you could eat by the plateful with just the right amount of sweetness ameliorated with brisket and a hint of chile. They’re the type of beans I order two portions of.
Lest I forget, Mad Max’s menu also includes several New Mexican entrees including flat enchiladas, tacos and quesadillas. Country-fried steak and country-fried chicken are also available. The enchiladas are served Northern New Mexican style which means flat and stacked (pictured above). Stacked means engorged with layers of smoked carne adovada and topped with an excellent, rich red chile. If Mad Max’s focused solely on New Mexican food, it would be one of the very best New Mexican restaurants in the Albuquerque area.
The handheld burrito with smoked carne adovada, hash browns, eggs and cheese could well be the very best in the metropolitan area. It’s a wonder the tortilla can hold all the ingredients, so generously are they stuffed. Breakfast is served from 6:30AM through 11AM. These burritos make it worth getting up.
No ordinary tacos are Max’s tacos which smart diners will order by the twelve pack. Though I would prefer soft tortillas to the crispy hard-shells, when those shells are engorged with carne adovada, beef brisket and shredded pork topped with lettuce and shredded cheese, you’ve got some of the best tacos around. Either or both salsa and barbecue sauce work equally well. An order of tacos includes a bowl of green chile invigorated beans and rice.
Two dessert options will provide you with a day’s worth of calories. Grandma Bea’s world famous deep fried cheesecake isn’t accompanied by an angioplasty, but maybe it should be.
Caloric overachievers might also opt for the curiously named Fran’s pickled piggy cake, a decadent masterpiece almost as tall as a cake plate is wide. It is a rich and delicious three-layer beauty replete with Mandarin oranges, pineapple and other mouth-watering ingredients. It will make a piggy out of you.
Barbecue skeptics who question why I would rate Mad Max’s above other well-established and very popular barbecue restaurants might be assuaged somewhat by a review published on the Alibi by Maren Tarro, a virtuoso of vocabulary. Maren spent many a year in Kansas City, one of America’s bastions of barbecue. She knows her stuff and she really liked Mad Max’s. Her credibility, when it comes to barbecue, is impeccable. So there…
If it’s true that there’s a fine line between madness and genius, Mad Max straddles toward the genius side. His barbecue is phenomenal! Now that he’s moved indoors, he’s able to expand his menu to offer St. Louis style ribs and other entrees. You might not even miss the outdoor dining experience because in Mad Max’s BBQ, there’s outdoor-quality, competition-certified barbecue indoors.
Mad Max’s BBQ
1600 Sara Road
Rio Rancho, NM
LATEST VISIT: 27 August 2009
# OF VISITS: 8
BEST BET: Handheld Burrito (Carne Adovada, Hash Browns, Cheese); Smoked Carne Adovada Sandwich; Smoked Brisket Sandwich; Combination Platter (Pork, Brisket, Sausage); Baked Beans; Coleslaw; Fran’s Pickled Piggy Cake