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And then there are the burgers. The Counter follows the sushi-bar model, giving you pencils and a checklist that offers a very nearly overwhelming plethora of options. My math isn't great, but I estimated at least 300,000 possible combinations of burgers, buns and toppings — not just smudging the line between Five Guys-style minimalist restraint and pure American overkill, but completely obliterating it. Danish blue on your burger? What about some NorCal goat cheese chèvre? Grilled onions too dull? Why not some Bermuda red or dried cranberries or grilled pineapple? There's also Black Forest ham and fried eggs, honey-cured bacon (cut thick and not burned at all), chili and guacamole, an apricot sauce, onion marmalade, Thai peanut sauce and spicy sour cream. Once you've made your way through all those choices, the Counter even gives you one more: You get to choose how your burger is cooked. And if you ask, the kitchen will leave that big, fat patty rare enough that it's still mooing when it's delivered to your table, and no one will stare when trickles of blood run down your chin.
The burgers are black Angus, cut from vegetarian cows (no lie) — 100 percent natural, no antibiotics or hormones, certified humane. If you care about that kind of thing, cool (the kitchen even offers veggie burgers). Personally, I only care because the beef tastes better. The first burger I tried at the Counter ruined a perfectly good shirt when the juice rolled down my arms far enough to stain my rolled-up sleeves. But I didn't care, because the burger was fantastic, even with the crazy combination of toppings I'd ordered. And while not all of the toppings are free, the first four are, as is your first cheese and any sauce. The only thing you'll pay extra for here is excess, but the chance to go completely nuts with black-bean salsa, pepperoncinis, 'shrooms and dill pickles makes the additional cost completely worthwhile.
8401 Park Meadows Center
Littleton, CO 80124
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
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On my second visit, I was a bit more restrained. I had a chocolate shake on one side, a beer on the other, and a massive platter of both regular french fries (cooked crisp and crunchy, soft on the outside and a beautiful golden brown) and sweet-potato fries (awesome, but I prefer them with a shake of sugar) in front of me. And another burger, this one topped by ham, sweet barbecue sauce and fried onion strings. Just this modest assortment of toppings produced an enormous burger — one that I needed to cut in half with the conveniently provided steak knife. And before I'd swallowed my first bite, I was already plotting my next combination.
Swear to the food gods, after my turn through Five Guys, the Counter was a revelation. Sure, it serves great burgers (although the buns have been dull and disappointing). But Weinstein and his franchisees are really selling dreams — carnivore dreams of limitless possibility, burger-junkie fever dreams of mad-scientist flavor combinations and endless experimentation. And this is genius, because dreams are free, and they're the best kind of advertising there is. Before you've even tasted what you've created today, you're thinking about what you can create tomorrow. What would the soy-ginger glaze and grilled pineapple be like on the chicken breast? How about chiles and Gruyère, or scallions, Swiss and satay sauce?
I always thought that I liked my burgers one way: in my belly. I like them simple. I like them recognizable. At the Counter, if I could resist, if I could restrain myself, yes, I could have a plain burger. All I'd have to do is check it off on the order sheet. All I'd have to do is defy temptation.
But that's one thing I've never been able to do. And at the Counter, you wouldn't want to. After all, don't we all deserve something a little special, something extra?
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