Photo by Anne Fishbein
When I was a small child in Los Angeles, a vanished paradise where the freeways flowed like swift water and the Dodgers won the pennant every year, the single most wonderful restaurant in the universe was a place called Woody’s Smorgasburger, a patch of heaven whose pleasures eclipsed even those of the neon javelin piercing the roof of the Wich Stand, and Poor Richard’s whizzing toy trains.
These were the golden years of the Los Angeles hamburger, I suppose, decades into the tenure of the Apple Pan, Cassell’s and Russell’s, but long enough ago that there was only one set of Golden Arches on the Westside. The hamburgers I was privileged to eat were profound and beautiful things, sometimes ordered from radio-controlled clowns or delivered by roller-skate-wearing carhops, eaten amid tikis and thatch or slung across the counters of glassed-in coffeeshops whose magnificence eclipsed Frank Lloyd Wright. They were real burgers, honest burgers, burgers that sometimes came with a slice of pineapple or a bit of plum jam, and I loved them all.
But a Woody’s Smorgasburger was a species unto itself — charcoal-grilled like all the others, true, but with the further incentive, irresistible to a 5-year-old, of being allowed to pile on the toppings oneself, which meant you could construct a fortress of serrated pickle slices, or devise elaborate buttresses of grilled onions and teriyaki sauce, or (as I did) smother the poor hamburger patty in sour cream, vinegar peppers and grubby, tiny fistfuls of slivered nuts. Such is the power of imagination.
The Woody’s I knew is long gone (a pale remnant of the chain still exists in El Segundo). So when I first heard about the Build Your Own Burger idea behind the Counter, a fashionable new dive in Ocean Park, a small, vestigial corner of my brain exploded into happiness, the few atoms of cerebellum that still yearn for Smoky Links and Kraft Dinners even after years of exposure to tacos de asada and Alain Ducasse. The Counter may not have been the rebirth of the Smorgasburger, but it seemed close enough, a universe of possibilities centering around the hamburger and its matrix of 40-odd fixings, a restaurant where a thick, rare, organic-beef hamburger with herbed goat cheese, dried cranberries and roasted chiles seemed not just the fancy of a celebrity used to flexing his whim of iron, but almost an imperative.
Ranch dressing on the side? Done!
The Counter is a pleasant restaurant across from the Santa Monica Airport, a sleek, modernist dining room at one end of a restaurant-dominated strip mall. There is a wine-bar aspect to the place (very decent, if obscure, vintages from California), a selection of microbrews, and waitresses who do not, to put it mildly, look as if they are part of the regular hamburger-eating demographic. Rock & roll grinds out of the speakers, a little louder and a little older than might be ideal, but at least tending more toward the Ramones than the Eagles.
When you walk into the restaurant, you are handed a small clipboard, a pencil, and a checklist of options that may be slightly longer than the one you were offered the last time you bought a car. You specify the size of the patty, up to a full pound; whether its composition should be flesh, fowl or miscellaneous soy; whether it should be served on a whole-grain bun, a regular bun or an English muffin; how long it should be cooked, if you like. There is a range of cheeses to consider — nothing too fancy; supermarket stuff — from Tillamook cheddar to Greek feta to underripe Danish blue. You are invited to choose four of many, many garnishes (olives, onions, hot peppers, sprouts, etc.), and one dressing (barbecue sauce, a surprisingly pungent garlic aioli). For a dollar or two more, you can accessorize with premium garnishes such as sautéed mushrooms, marinated artichoke hearts or bacon.
You pay, and you wait, and eventually, you sit. In the meantime, sir, would you like a drink at the bar?
The Counter’s idea of first courses may be your idea of side dishes, but the breaded, deep-fried pickle chips are pretty good (if not quite up to the level of the fried pickles at, say, Wentzel’s Oyster Bar in Mobile, Alabama), and the fried onion strings are close to the Hamburger Hamlet onions we all grew up eating. Something called a Hobo Pack, chunked vegetables steamed with herbs in a foil packet, are probably at least as tasty as the ones you may remember roasting in the coals at Boy Scout cookouts, even if they have nothing of the campfire in them.
And then the hamburgers appear, massive things, mounded with cool, chunky guacamole, Dijon mustard, spicy sour cream, those dried cranberries — hey, whatever you asked for — and sandwiched between two rather too solid buns. It’s odd: The ingredients are mostly very good (extraordinary, in the case of the guacamole and the sweetly smoky bacon), and the beef is juicy, nicely seared and full of flavor, but for the welter of garnishes, the burgers never quite come off — especially when they come Atkins style — Protein Style! — in a bowl of torn, undressed lettuce. At the Counter, it may seriously help to be 5 years old.
The Counter, 2901 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 399-8383. Open Mon.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–11 p.m.; Sun. noon-9 p.m. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Beer and wine. Lot parking in rear. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $13–$22.