Not so long ago, The Counter was a simple but beloved neighborhood joint specializing in high-quality, bespoke burgers. Well before the anti-carb craze, The Counter was semi-famous for its "burger in a bowl," a burger served on top of salad greens instead of a bun. Burger King claims you can "have it your way," but The Counter actually delivers on that promise.
Thanks to an infusion of cash, the original eatery has expanded into a mini-empire with a dozen locations in Southern California, at least a dozen more around the rest of the country and even a few in Ireland and Australia. Right, but how are the burgers?
Mix & Match: Of all the mid- and upscale burger joints in Los Angeles, The Counter is, by far, the most family-friendly. The locations are generally loud, the waitstaff is happy to accommodate high-chairs and the build-your-own-burger concept works well for children and picky eaters. The Counter offers its own pre-fab combos, but we wouldn't know anything about them. We're too impressed and overwhelmed by the 30 or so toppings -- and that's not counting cheese or sauces. Will spicy pepperoncinis pair well with grilled pineapple? How about sun-dried tomatoes and black forest ham? You could eat at The Counter a thousand times and never have the same burger twice.
Meat & Bun: The dilemma/opportunity begins when choosing a protein: thick beef burger, bland turkey burger, chicken breast or veggie burger. Then, choose a size. The smallest option, $8.50 for one-third of a pound (after cooking) is a good deal and big enough for a hungry person, but you can go as high as a one-pound burger for $13.50.
The Counter's standard bun is a soft, squishy thing halfway between a brioche and a traditional hamburger bun. If you're ordering toppings with any moisture in them -- grilled onions or a fried egg -- consider the multi-grain bun, which holds up better under an onslaught of drippy condiments.
Toppings: This is where the price of your burger can start to add up. Your first slice of cheese, and you do want one because The Counter's options go well beyond cheddar to include brie, herbed goat cheese, gruyere and more, is free. (Additional slices will set you back $1.) You get one sauce and four standard toppings free. (After that, they're $.50 each.) So a cheeseburger with lettuce, tomatoes and onions would still be... only $8.50. When we're feeling healthy-ish, our favorite topping is the black bean and corn relish, which adds tang and sweetness without a ton of extra calories.
Premium toppings like chili, avocado and bacon cost $1 each. When we're feeling hedonistic, we throw on a fried egg and let the yolk gently bathe the burger.
The toppings are mostly very high quality, though the bacon could really be thicker and far more crisp. We love blue cheese as much as the next curdophile, but their Danish blue is salty and sharp and way too liberally applied. A little goes a long way with this stuff. No need to gob it on with a trowel.
Sides: There's a reason Durkee onion crisps are usually sprinkled onto or served as an accompaniment to another dish. Because eating vast quantities of them on their own should only be attempted by the deeply stoned. The Counter's onion strings are a posh version of this Thanksgiving staple, and for a half-a-dozen bites, they're delicious. Beyond that, they begin to feel overwhelmingly greasy. The moment they cool, they lose their crispness and much of their appeal.
The Counter's fries are solid and inoffensive. Not much to report. Their deep-fried dill pickle chips, however, are a winner. Snuggled up in a blanket of bread crumbs, they snap and crackle as you bite through the crust, yielding to the soft, sour sliver inside. A $4 plate is enough for four people (here too, a little goes a long way), but if you just want a few, you can order the pickle chips as a burger topping.
Dessert: The Counter doesn't serve the
liquor-laden milkshakes of GO Burger, but they have something just as good: an apple pie milkshake with bits of cinnamony crumble blended with vanilla ice cream. Suck minute crisps of dough and pieces of baked apple through a straw, then mine for the larger chunks settled at the bottom with a spoon. If you're a fan of Polly's pie shake, and indeed we are, this is even better.
The Upshot: Perfect for families, large groups and picky eaters, The Counter offers an almost unlimited number of possibilities, with enough choices to please nearly everyone. Good value for the price. Save room for a side of pickled chips and an apple pie milkshake.
[Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that each slice of cheese was $1 and each standard topping was $.50. In fact, the first slice of cheese and the first four standard toppings are free. After that, The Counter charges the aforementioned rate for each additional cheese or topping. We regret the error.]
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Exercise: 45-min. elliptical trainer. Lots of hills.