Over a mound of chili cheese fries and two beers, my friend Steve is eyeing The Counter's casually crisp interior with a look of dawning comprehension.
"This looks a lot like a burger place I used to go to in Los Angeles," he murmured. The cheerful hostess who had sat us overheard him and jumped right in with an explanation.
"We're based in California!" she said brightly, as if she'd been planted there by the California Board of Tourism itself. "And we have several locations in L.A."
Steve nodded, grinning: "Yep, that's it. I've been here before."
The Counter is a California import – there's almost no denying it despite the modern Texana-style photos decorating the celadon walls – but don't hold that against them. It's also serving up some of Houston's finest burgers with a very Texan attitude that calls to mind a favorite fast food slogan: "Just like you like it."
At The Counter, you're the architect of your burger fantasies. Inside its cool, high-ceilinged dining room – shades of light green and slate with stainless steel accents making it look like the modern California version of a malt shop – you're handed a clipboard with a staggering list of choices. You are the chef; you decide if pesto sauce pairs well with a turkey burger and dried cranberries.
You also decide what meat will be in your burger, how large you want your patty, what type of bun will sandwich it, how many or how few toppings and sauces you want, how extraordinary or mundane your creation will be. It's dizzying at first, but there's nothing quite like gleefully careening through the list of options with a pencil and a friend.
"I don't know what to choose!" I said. It was my fourth visit to The Counter and creating a burger hadn't become any easier with repetition. But I still found enjoyment in piecing a burger together in my head: Would a fried egg be too disgusting with Brie, bacon and apricot sauce? Or would it be magical?
Meanwhile, Steve was determined to figure out the answer to his turkey, pesto and cranberries question. He added feta cheese for good measure, and put the whole thing on a multigrain bun. He finished his sheet and put his pencil down with finality, like he'd finished a quiz before me. Flustered, I took a wild stab when our waiter came by and ordered the Backyard Barbecue, a "burger in a bowl" with onion rings, tomatoes, Cheddar, onions, ham and dual sides of Ranch dressing and barbecue sauce, all on a bed of lettuce.
As I mused over the potential calorie count of this thing, I was pleased to notice on The Counter's menu that none of its lettuce-bedded "burgers in bowls" are called salads. It was a refreshing bit of honesty in a time when nearly every restaurant wants to try and pretend that 1,000 calories piled on top of lettuce can be called "a salad."
When my non-salad arrived, I laughed to see that a "burger in a bowl" is, indeed, just that: my perfectly medium-rare patty sat on a bed of greens, topped with a thick cloak of melted Cheddar and a tall stack of onion rings. Dressings were on the side, and I wasted no time in cutting up my burger and mixing the entire bowl together. It was messy and silly and inarguably low-brow. And I loved every bite of it.
That's what's great about The Counter: It isn't reinventing the wheel. It's just doing a fabulous job of making those wheels and delivering them to you with a smile.
There are plenty of build-your-own-burger places. But none of them touches this California import when it comes to the important issues such as quality and customer service, as well as those small touches that make me want to come back again and again.
The service is impeccable, highly personable and never impatient (and I've witnessed customers dawdling for ages over those clipboards). The atmosphere is clean and cool. There is an admirable selection of beers and wines to be had with your meal. The shakes are great. And the food, while not pushing any creative boundaries, is very good.
Take, for example, the dill pickle chips served at so many restaurants in town. The chips could be frozen and served with dull Ranch dressing. But here, they're clearly freshly cut and battered in thick, toothsome discs and served with the unlikeliest of all sauces: a tangy, sweet apricot sauce. The contrast between sour and sweet is subtly inspired.
I appreciate, too, that the menu isn't entirely static: Market selections change every 30 days or so, meaning that a cherry pie shake with gingery bits of graham cracker will be available amidst the rotation of basic flavors, or that a Greek lamb burger with feta will be the featured burger of the month. And for anyone who doesn't want to agonize over the list of toppings, there are standard burgers on the menu here, such as the Old School with Cheddar, onions, pickles, tomatoes and lettuce, or the fancier Counter Burger with onion strings, Provolone, sauteed mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes. You can always go back to old favorites here, or you can branch out and try something new.
When I build a burger at The Counter, I'm one of those that tends to stick with old favorites: a beef patty (and the 100 percent Angus that's served here makes it difficult to choose anything else) with peppy jalapeno jack cheese, bright red onions, and a sweetly hearty chipotle mayonnaise. More creative burger builders might go with peanut sauce and paper-thin carrot strings on their burger, or grilled onions with grilled pineapple on their veggie patty. Either way, I've yet to come across a topping or a sauce at The Counter that I don't like.
That's not to say it doesn't have room for improvement in some areas. The chili cheese fries don't work when built with flimsy shoestring french fries, and the onion strings served as an alternate to regular fries or sweet potato fries are likewise too floppy to be as enjoyable as they could be. The spinach-and-carrot-studded veggie patty suffers from a similar fate, falling apart nearly as soon as you bite into it. Which is a shame, as both the veggie patty and the onion strings have deep, wonderful flavors that simply demand sturdier platforms.
But these small nitpicks are made up for by other areas: soft onion buns that beg to be the foundation of every burger; peanut butter shakes that taste like a childhood dream of ice cream and Nutter Butters; impossibly fresh produce, from buttery avocado slices to ruby red tomatoes; and the remarkable willingness and ability to cook a patty to a blushing medium-rare.
One of the things I like most about The Counter is that modern malt shop vibe it conveys, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a massive, horseshoe-shaped bar as the centerpiece of the restaurant. Unlike most restaurants, however, this bar appeals less to would-be drinkers and more to shake-sippers. It's a charmingly retro vibe, watching businessmen happily suck down chocolate malts at lunch or younger couples sharing a slice of pie on a date night.
That's not to say the bar doesn't also have alcohol; the beer and wine selection is larger than I initially expected, while still keeping the list short and sweet. Bottles of Affigem Blonde and Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA hold court alongside hefty brews like Arrogant Bastard Ale and Rogue Dead Guy on draft. And on a recent evening, a bottle of Wine Guerilla Zinfandel and its clean, fresh, juicy berry flavor couldn't have paired better with a couple of equally juicy burgers and a plate of french fries.
Of course, since the The Counter is on Washington Avenue, this can sometimes mean you'll get a little amateur dinner theater with your food, whether you like it or not. Weekend evenings are peak times for pre-clubbing twenty-somethings to line their stomachs with burgers before punishing them with shots of Jaeger and buckets of Lone Stars.
On one such night, my dinner companion and I were enjoying the evening over that bottle of Zinfandel at the bar, when the counter started to shake violently. Had The Counter transplanted earthquakes from California along with its burgers? No, it was just the over-grown man child to my left, fists balled up and pounding the bar repeatedly like a 25-year-old toddler throwing a tantrum.
"Coo-kie! Coo-kie! Coo-kie! Coo-kie!" he chanted over and over as he pounded. The employees behind the bar seemed embarrassed by his behavior and avoided eye contact with him. I gave the man an icy glare and his two friends noticed, chuckling and apologizing on his behalf.
"He just wants his cookie," they laughed. A minute later, I saw what they were talking about: A giant, platter-size chocolate cookie landed in front of him and he proceeded to attack it like a caveman. Post-cookie, the three men went back to resuming their loud boasting of recent sexual conquests, and we went back to ignoring them.
After all, my burger had arrived. As I cut through the bright pink patty and the soft, white blanket of Brie, any other cares I had at that moment melted away. Now that's a good burger.