Second Helpings

How much do I love the Counter? After a year, I'm still counting the ways

While talking with Tom Ryan, the man behind Smashburger, I heard how the original Smashburger service model — in which customers wrote down exactly what they wanted on their burgers by checking boxes on a sushi bar-style paper menu — was abandoned rather quickly once the company realized that a) a simple, straightforward menu with a few basic options worked better in a fast-casual environment, and b) no one liked filling out paperwork just to get lunch.

But at the Counter, the "Build Your Own Burger," paper-menu-and-golf-pencil system has been one of the draws since the place opened last August in the Vistas at Park Meadows. Letting diners custom-build their burgers has allowed the Counter to set itself apart in this already burger-heavy town. The toppings are high-end — horseradish cheddar, dried cranberries, hard-boiled egg, imported peppers and more than a dozen scratch-made sauces — and the almost infinite possibilities keep people coming back.

I'm one of those people. Occasionally, I'm willing to go through a little additional hassle and pay a little more money in order to score a serious burger several steps beyond the standard 1/3-pound, cheese-and-basics served almost everywhere else. For example, last week when I visited the Counter (which I first reviewed in November 2008), I went for the 2/3-pound all-natural Angus patty, cooked a nicely bloody medium-rare, with horseradish cheddar, thin-sliced Bermuda red onions, thick-cut slabs of honey-cured bacon and horseradish mustard — a cheeseburger designed by me and delivered to me at the bar exactly in accordance with my specifications.

Every now and again, I like that kind of power. I like the responsibility that goes with it. I like being the captain of my own cheeseburger destiny. I was even okay with paying a couple bucks over the normal bar-room price (for a total of about eleven) to get exactly what I wanted, because when my burger arrived, it was a real burger, a big, heavy, serious hunk of meat with some weight to it, bearing the hallmarks of a kitchen that really knows what it's doing.

No, it's not the kind of burger I'd go for every day. It's not the kind of thing I could conceive of eating for lunch if I had any other plans for the rest of the day. But a year out from its momentous opening at Park Meadows, the Counter is sticking to its guns and offering an burger experience that makes a worthy, occasional detour from your standard, workaday cheeseburger operations.

In Second Helping, Jason Sheehan visits a restaurant that deserves extra attention. Send suggestions to [email protected].