Cafe Society

It's hard to top the burger at The Counter

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So, what're you gonna get?"

"I dunno. What're you gonna get?"

"That depends on what you're gonna get. Like, I was thinking about the ham, but then I was thinking green chiles..."

"Yeah, I was thinking green chiles. Bacon."

"Of course you're going to get bacon."

"Maybe a sauce..."

"What sauce?"

"I...I just don't know."

Option paralysis. It's a big danger at The Counter. Laura and I had been eating cheeseburgers on and off for a couple of weeks, and the Counter, which opened in August in the vast Vistas at Park Meadows, was our last stop. And now we were stymied, freaked out by all the topping possibilities. I eventually went with the roasted green chiles (which, oddly, tasted like cactus), Southwestern Caesar dressing, bacon, Gruyère, sharp cheddar and horseradish mayo, a disparate and jarring and very international muddled mess. But the burger was love at first bite. True, I had to unhinge my jaw like a python just to take that bite, but it was love nonetheless.

At last.

Before I finally encountered the Counter, I'd tried Five Guys Burgers and Fries, a five-month-old local outlet of a 1,000-strong franchise focused mostly on the East Coast. Since 1986, this family operation — started by Janie and Jerry Murrell and their four sons — has focused on keeping things simple, serving burgers wrapped in foil and bagged to go in greasy brown-paper sacks, even if you're eating in; Idaho potato fries, hand-cut and fried in peanut oil; cold Cokes; some hot dogs. It's a classic American operation, its roots stretching back half a century to the original roadside burger stands of the hamburger's Golden Age. There's just one twist: Five Guys offers all of its toppings for free. And there are fifteen of them, ranging from simple ketchup and mayo to hot sauce, relish and fried onions.

The company has a cultish following, especially around Washington, D.C. Fans post their mash notes on corkboards in the dining room (which is tiled in red and white, sterile as a hospital men's room save the red-and-white fifty-pound bags of potatoes stacked by the doors and the red-and-white boxes of peanuts for customers to snack on). Five Guys has been handed awards both minor ("Best Burger in Raleigh") and major (love from the Zagat guide eight years running), and quotes these raves on red-and-white signs all over the restaurant. But Tim and Nina, or their Zagat minions, must've been either very hungry or very high or both when they rolled up to Five Guys, because if the South Parker Road location is indicative — and it should be, as the chain prides itself publicly on its consistency and uniformity coast-to-coast — then I weep for the future of this country's burger pushers.

The first time I sat down in the dining room, opened my paper bag and unwrapped the foil, I found a thin burger that was dry as hell and burned like it'd said something nasty about the cook's mother. The second time, my burger was just as bad. According to Five Guys company policy, in order to ensure consistency and "exceed health code standards," all burgers are cooked "juicy and well-done." But that's simply not possible. Cooking fresh-ground beef on a flattop, it's rough to keep a thin burger "juicy" even at a mid-rare, much less well-done. The only consistency Five Guys has assured its customers is that you can count on getting a burned, dried-out hockey puck for dinner.

The fries were another problem. They're served proudly greasy, which is fine when they're hot and fresh out of the oil, but they go downhill fast. I'd watched the fry cook work, observing his double rotation of baskets, aiming for that perfect blanch-and-crisp frite-style double dunk — but he'd failed, because you need a high-carb, high-sugar potato like a Yukon Gold to get a truly great, crisp fry, and these spuds just didn't cut it. There was something inherently soft and waxy about them that even the peanut oil in the fryers couldn't fix.

The free toppings didn't help. I'd asked for cheese and bacon on my first burger, and even the bacon was burned. For my second, I went with the full lube job: ketchup and mayo and barbecue sauce — and what I got was ketchup and mayo and barbecue sauce on a burnt fucking burger. If I wanted to sit around and eat a tub of mayonnaise, I could do that at home. In fact, I was seriously thinking about tamping down my burger jones by grilling up a couple of fat-bastard burgers myself, the patties covered with Gouda and sharp cheddar and bacon and cooked a serial-killer's bloody rare.

Then we went to the Counter.

The Counter is another concept restaurant, this one born in Santa Monica in 2003, the raucous child of a 32-year-old bar-and-club guy named Jeffrey Weinstein, and it's a pure product of the 21st century, of the fast-casual boom and West Coast culture. The interior is spare and spartan, with lots of white and burnished metal; the staff's in blue jeans and tattoo-art-inspired shirts. The art on the walls is black and white, mostly rock-and-roll themed. More important, the Counter has a bar. It does wine (for a nice, high-rent/lowbrow juxtaposition, kind of like that last scene in Sideways, though there's nothing on the list that approaches that '61 Cheval Blanc), it does beer, it does killer shakes and malts, served high and thick and in interesting flavors to brace up the standard vanilla-chocolate-strawberry classics.

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.

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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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan