We're out for lunch at Max's Lifestyle. The incomplete sounding name is reflective of the fact that the venue is not easily defined as a restaurant, a tavern or even a club - its all of those things, but it's more than that too. Max's started out in 2002 serving braaied meat from a single roomed shack next to a taxi rank, but under the savvy ownership of Max Mqadi it has expanded into a bustling bar, lounge, butchery and restaurant that is known as a place to see and be seen. It's frequented by government bigwigs, local celebrities and assorted black diamonds as well as locals, and is the venue of choice for those seeking a dose of authentic Kasi (township) culture.
The dining experience here has a uniquely township flavour - there are no waiters or menus, so we order a couple of beers from the bar while we watch the regulars to see how its done. The bar is outfitted with dark wood and granite tops, so don't expect to order quarts - you can get bottles or draughts of the usual SAB fare as well as high end whiskys and spirits - Dom Perignon, Henessy and Belvedere rub shoulders with Johnnie Walker Blue and 21 year old Glenfiddich. It's lunchtime, so we stick to Castle Lite and enjoy the music and the people watching. The bouncer is doubling as a DJ, and spinning a range of tracks from R&B slow jams, to Afro-soul and even Westlife on one occasion.
Turns out that its pretty easy to place an order - the first step is to take a short stroll over to the built in butchery at the back of the deck. There's a refrigerated glass display case and you get to pick your own meat and then sit back and relax while it's expertly grilled and returned to your table. The butchery focuses on cheap cuts - there are mounds of thinly sliced chuck steak; heaped piles of beef short rib; pork chops; chicken pieces and thick loops of boerewors. There are also whole beef livers and tripe if you're into internal organs. The ladies behind the counter will individually weigh and price your selections and pile them onto a wooden slab before liberally dusting them in a mystery powder from a large plastic container.
'Aha - Max's famous special spice mix?' I ask the lady behind the counter - 'what's the secret ingredient'? She looks confused. 'It's barbecue spice', she says. Oh well.
After paying (prices err on the ridiculously reasonable side - lunch set us back about R80 for two, exluding drinks), the meat board is handed back to the customer, who carries it to the braai area out back. Here a sweating staff member is tending to two heavily laden 40 gallon drum braais. There is a haze of smoke, and the smell of sizzling steaks mingles with the scents of charcoal, roasting chicken and the fat that's dripping slowly into the flames.
Service is relaxed rather than prompt, but when the meat arrives it is worth the wait. The chicken wings make perfect finger food starters, and have a lovely flame-grilled finish, while the boerewors is of surprisingly good quality - juicy, well spiced and bursting with flavour. The beef short-rib and the chuck steak taste great (maybe there is more to the barbecue spice than meets the eye), and while not tender, the enjoyment of gnawing meat off the bone should not be underrated. There are no utensils here, save a single steak knife, and no plates either so meat is enjoyed the way nature intended, out of your hands.
It's obvious that Max's is run by a man - there are no vegetables in sight, with all of the sides on offer being starchy in nature - steamed bread (ujeqe), dumplings (dombolo), and pap are headliners. Many of the tables near us forego sides altogether and simply devour their huge platters of meat washed down by endless rounds of beer.
We order pap, which comes in a polystyrene container and is thick, stiff and cool, contrasting nicely with the hot, fatty meat. An additional side is a disposable cup holding a generous portion of a thick red chili sauce that would not look out of place in an Indian restaurant. According to Max's legend, this sauce is the perfect cure for a hangover. The only other seasoning is two little piles of table salt served on the meat platter.
There are no desserts to speak of, although the butchery does include what is basically a small spaza shop selling chips, cool-drinks, and ice creams, so you can always finish your meal off with a Magnum if you feel so inclined.
Umlazi is only a few kilometers down the road from the more familiar face of Durban, but it would be easy to spend a lifetime in the city without visiting South Africa's second biggest township (after Soweto). Max's stated aim of creating a space frequented by all cultures and races is the perfect invitation to explore this world - and get a great meal into the bargain.