October 02, 2006

Made it through the wilderness...

Somehow I made it through
Didn't know how lost I was
until I found you...

First there was a mid summer frozen-food tribute to urban lyricist Robert Van Winkle. Now it's an evening out on the town, ala the Queen of Pop. Delicious Sarah's 80's themed events call to my inner angst-ridden teenager. Or maybe it's that this event was announced on the eve of my high school reunion, when I've completely time-warped back to the sockless Sperry Topsider, white Ray-Ban era of 1986.

But when Sarah announced the theme for Dine & Dish 7 - Like a Virgin (hey!), I didn't hesitate for a moment. I knew exactly where I was going. A new (to the Bay Area) restaurant: The Counter in Palo Alto.

I was beat, incomplete
I'd been had, I was sad and blue
But you made me feel
Yeah, you made me feel
Shiny and new...

I knew The Counter was coming to the Bay Area. That this is the first of twenty-something sister locations "coming soon" to communities across the country. I'd read several articles in a varied assortment of publications assuring me they produced some of the best burgers in the country. Other bay area bloggers made the pilgrimage in August and September. While I knew Tim's approach wasn't for me, each account moved the restaurant up a notch or two on my "must try" list. When Sarah announced Dine & Dish, my eighteen year old burger-loving self met my thirty-eight year old foodie self and there was no question, it was time for a virginal visit to The Counter.

Gonna give you all my love, boy
My fear is fading fast
Been saving it all for you
cause only love can last...

If you've followed the links, you understand the drill: You walk into the industrial soda fountain (think Chipotle meets Fentons/Swensons and kicks it up a couple of notches) and grab a clipboard with a menu. Choose your burger (beef, turkey, grilled chicken or veggie), the delivery mechanism (bun or bowl of greens) and various toppings from a wide array of options while you wait to be seated. The place was surprisingly crowded for an hour before closing on a Sunday night, so we opted for two seats at... drumroll please... The Counter rather than waiting for a table.

We skipped the shakes (though they looked deliciously authentic) and dove into the heart of the menu. We both opted for "in a bowl", but from there our burgers diverged. I selected a third of a pound with Tilamook cheddar, grilled onions, tomato, avocado and sauteed mushrooms with horseradish mayo -- and was relieved when Frankie didn't flinch when I requested that my hormone and antibiotic-free burger be prepared medium rare. John went for the 2/3 pound burger with an assortment of toppings and the spicy peanut sauce. And we split a basket of sweet-salty sweet potato fries.

As we waited for our dinner I expressed regret that my photography skills don't warrant a more sophisticated camera. Our prime seats at the counter gave us a great view of the action in the kitchen, but I knew my point-and-shoot digital couldn't capture the activity or the precision of the process.

The burgers arrived promptly and we wasted no time digging in. I was pleasantly surprised by the quantity and the freshness of the bed of greens below my burger. No shredded, watered down iceberg here -- this was two generous cups of fresh, crispy-tangy micro-greens. The toppings were generous without being outrageously out of proportion, and the sauce was served on the side so I could regulate its distribution. Curious about the beef with peanut sauce choice, I tasted John's burger. It was odd -- peanut sauce is a chicken thing for me -- but it certainly didn't suck.

While we didn't indulge, I should mention here that The Counter offers a surprisingly extensive wine and micro-brew list for what's effectively a burger joint. And what appeared to be a full bar.

When we finished our dinner, Frankie eagerly offered us a dessert menu. While the concept of a "chocolate burger" (a donut filled with chocolate mousse) fascinated us, we'd budgeted neither the time nor the calories to indulge.

Next time. Because I'm quite sure there will be a next time. Several next times. It's the answer to my occasional need for all-American comfort food, but something "more interesting" than "just a burger". I think Carter of Food Notebook expressed it perfectly: The Counter's focus on doing one thing -- and doing it *really well* -- will be their ticket to success, in the bay area and around the country. If you get the opportunity, by all means, check it out.

The Counter - Two California Locations:
2901 Ocean Park Blvd - Santa Monica, CA 90405 - 310.399.8383
369 California Avenue - Palo Alto, CA 94306 - 650.321.3900

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Garrett said...

Can;t wait to see your menu!

wheresmymind said...

any opportunity to use Vanilla Ice in a food blog is groovy with me :D

Carter Lusher said...

Howdy, Thanks for the mention. Chronicles in Culinary Curiosity is definitely on my list of blogs to read. Cheers!