For a while, I was wondering if soul-food-type restaurants in Tucson were irreparably jinxed.
Last year, a little place called Auntie Dora's Porch opened with a promise of tasty soul-food staples, started generating some buzz ... and promptly closed after receiving several citations from the Pima County Health Department.
Then last spring, we received word that Mays Counter Chicken and Waffles was going to open next to Casa Video on Speedway Boulevard by the end of May ... and then on June 20 ... and then "sometime in August."
In September, my fears about that jinx subsided when Mays opened—and my fears were completely eliminated after I visited the place and discovered a charming little spot offering delicious, inexpensive gut-busting eats.
Noshing Around maven Adam Borowitz tells me that Mays Counter is a joint project of some restaurateurs who know their stuff: Phoenix quasi-celebrity chef Aaron May; Ryan Field, who handles Tucson's My Big Fat Greek restaurants; and local restaurant-designer John Foster.
That combined expertise shows: Mays Counter is clean, professional-looking and well-run. I'd describe the décor as college/sports-bar chic, with a big bar, flat-screen TVs and ample patio seating. The concept, from the motto ("Eat well. Drink a lot.") to the logo, feels like it could be successfully rolled out all across the country.
But for now, Mays Counter's sole location is here in Tucson, and we're lucky to have the place.
The breakfast menu includes traditional faves like corned beef hash and eggs ($6), chilaquiles ($8), omelettes and pancakes, as well as "mornin' po boys" (each $7). The lunch-and-dinner menu offers salads, "two-handed counter sandwiches," and Southern-tinged appetizers and entrées like spicy garlic shrimp-n-grits ($16) and blackened catfish ($14).
But the centerpiece of the menu, of course, is chicken and waffles, which is exactly what it sounds like: a round waffle and some fried chicken placed on top, with real maple syrup offered in a squeeze bottle sitting on your table.
At our brunch visit, I ordered the "odd bird" chicken-and-waffles plate (a waffle and a chef's choice of three chicken pieces, $7). Our knowledgeable and enthusiastic server brought it out, and being a chicken-and-waffles neophyte, I asked him: "Um, how do you recommend I eat this?" He said that was, of course, up to me, so I ate the chicken first, and the waffle later. The chicken thigh, drumstick and wing were all juicy and delicious; the batter/coating didn't add a lot of flavor, but it didn't really need to, as the chicken on its own was fresh and delightful.
As for the waffle, it was perfect: crispy on the outside, soft and springy on the inside, and just slightly sweet. Yum.
Garrett ordered the wildcat ($8), a concoction consisting of two eggs (any style) covered with bacon and cheese, and then placed between two layers of hash browns. It ended up being a dense, but tasty, slab o' breakfast food.
We also got an order of cornbread to go ($2). The addition of spicy pepper—jalapeno, I think—both muted and complemented the sweetness of the bread. It was wonderful.
On our dinner visit, we started with two appetizers: the chicken tenders ($7) and the waffle skins ($7). They were delivered promptly, as were our two happy-hour Jim Beam-and-Cokes ($4). (It's happy hour every day from 4 to 7 p.m. with drink specials and—if you sit at the bar—deals on appetizers.)
The three chicken fingers were huge—they looked like large chicken breasts that had been cut in half lengthwise—and were served with three sauces: ranch, barbecue and honey-mustard. The menu says the tenders have the "same recipe as (the) famous fried chicken," but I can tell you that the breading was different; the breading here was course and flaky, whereas the fried-chicken breading was rather fine and smooth. Nonetheless, like the fried chicken, these tenders were moist, juicy and enjoyable.
As for the waffle skins, Garrett summed them up with one word: brilliant. Four waffle pieces were topped with bacon, Swiss cheese, spinach, chicken and "counter" sauce (a spicy mayonnaise). The combination was divine; the subtle sweetness of the waffle mixed with the savory chicken, the tangy sauce, the slightly bitter spinach and the always-delicious bacon and Swiss to create a new entry on my Top 10 Tucson Appetizers List (if, in fact, I actually maintained such a list).
For main courses, I had to get the chicken-fried steak ($10, with two "small plates"; I chose the macaroni and cheese, $5 separately, and more of that cornbread). Chicken-fried steak is one of life's greatest guilty pleasures, as far as I am concerned. Mays Counter's version is not one of the best I've ever had, but it was enjoyable. The steak was tenderized to the point where I could cut it with a fork, and the black-pepper-flavored country gravy was perfect. The dish lost points due to the batter (similar to the coating on the chicken fingers); it didn't have much flavor at all, and it actually got in the way a bit, as there was so much of it.
The mac-and-cheese was the true star of the plate. Basic mac-and-cheese—just cheese and pasta—can be rather boring, because those ingredients need something else to help bring out and enhance the flavors. In this case, the "something else" was red pepper. And the result was fantastic.
Garrett ordered the patty melt ($9). The sandwich—ground beef with Swiss, onions and sauerkraut on rye bread—was given an enthusiastic thumbs-up, especially after he asked for some Thousand Island dressing for dipping purposes. The accompanying skinny seasoned crinkle-cut fries were a nice side.
Mays Counter offers an ever-changing dessert list. Our server said peach cobbler is almost always available, and on our dinner visit, a chocolate cake was offered; during our brunch visit, a rather tempting option was sweet-potato pie. However, we never indulged; we were always too dang full, thanks to the hearty portions.
Mays Counter Chicken and Waffles has added a welcome, delicious Southern flair to Tucson. Go there. You'll like it.