Review: May’s Counter

February 23, 2013 |

Chicken And Waffle Experience Underwhelms

The subdued ambiance of May’s Counter feels incongruous to cheery Southern cuisine. There are bright red diner stools marching along the bar, but black and dark wood dominate the decor. Six flat-screened TVs tuned to sports stations are dotted around the dining area: heavy tables spread across a tiled floor that mimics poured concrete. Black faux leather booths—each with a bold red racing strip down the center emblazoned with May’s Counter’s logo—line the wall opposite the bar. The overall atmosphere of “sports-bar-meets-diner-meets-grandfather’s-mahogany-paneled-study” is polished – but boring. As for the food, the concept is robust, but execution underwhelms.

Two friends weaned on grits and fried chicken in Louisiana joined me for my first dinner at May’s. We ordered a few beers – May’s has an entirely adequate selection of cocktails and beers, including the kitschy option of a PBR tallboy in a paper bag – while we mulled over the trendy-looking menu.

I selected the “Hen” ($10): one waffle and two chicken breasts. The chicken arrived crisp and crunchy, its white meat moist within, but the batter could have used a jolt of seasoning. And the limp waffle was like elevator music: inoffensively bland.

My friend Daniel approved of his gigantic shrimp po’ boy ($11, with a side of tater tots or crinkle-cut fries), with the exception of the bread: it looked and tasted like an oversized hot dog bun and left him wishing for the traditional French bread. Jessie’s fried catfish “big plate” ($14 with two sides) was enjoyable, but she delivered a crushing blow when she admitted that the meal wasn’t as good as her elementary school cafeteria’s version. Her collard greens were unexceptional – and tasted inexplicably of cumin. Her second side order, grits, won top awards: fluffy and deliciously decadent. The three of us split two additional sides. Cheers for the crispy fried okra ($4), but the ranch dipping sauce overpowered. The house-made mac and cheese ($5) looked pretty, flecked with chile, but looks can be deceiving: it didn’t even taste as good as the boxed stuff.

My second visit to May’s Counter provided two delights: the pickle chips appetizer ($7) and the “best bite ever.” My dining companions and I dug into the crisp, salty pickles with gusto. They seem like a misfit among appetizers ­– they strike me as a perfect bar food ­– but they’re good enough that I’d eat them wherever they show up. The “best bite ever” I credit to the culinary genius of my friend Alex. He ordered the “BYO” ($12 for a waffle and your choice of three pieces of fried chicken) and deconstructed the whole thing into a mess of dark meat, crispy skin, hot sauce, and maple syrup, scooping it all up with bits of waffle. He fed Ali and me each a big bite of chicken wrapped up in a waffle dripping with hot sauce and syrup. Absurdly messy – and equally delicious.

Our “Angry Bird” buffalo chicken sandwich ($9) tasted solidly O.K., but the “12 Gauge Chicken” sandwich ($9) should have stayed in the kitchen. A thick, puffy, hamburger-esque bun and dry grilled chicken overwhelmed the tentative spread of grayish guacamole and a few slices of jalapeño. A side of succotash ­– a buttery mix of grape tomatoes, corn, and lima beans – was colorful and had plenty of flavor, but wasn’t good enough to salvage the meal.

May’s attracts families looking for a casual meal out and groups of college students looking for comfort food and a beer in a sports-bar environment. The restaurant, brainchild of Arizona chef and restaurateur Aaron May, has a good concept, and they’ve got their marketing down pat (“Eat Well, Drink A Lot” is their catchy slogan). With a relative dearth of fried-chicken-and-waffle joints in Tucson, sure, hit up May’s if that’s what you’re really craving. But, at least at dinner and lunch time (I didn’t try their breakfast offerings), don’t stray off the beaten path. May’s can fry up a good piece of chicken – they can fry anything pretty well, for that matter – but beyond that, they disappoint.

The lowdown:

How much? $$ (entrees average between $10 and $15)

Who goes? Attracts sporty college students and families.

What’s the vibe? Classed-up sports-bar ambiance; plenty of outdoor seating. Service is inconsistent but not terrible.

Is it worth it? Go if you want fried chicken and waffles and don’t mind that your meal’s a little overpriced.

All major credit cards accepted.

Category: FOOD & DRINK, Zocalo Hannah