| Burgers |

First Look at The Counter

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There is indeed a counter inside The Counter (4601 Washington, 713-966-6123). The large, horseshoe-shaped counter is the centerpiece of the new restaurant -- a burger chain from California -- that looks like a modern-day malt shop inside, complete with folks contentedly sipping on chocolate shakes as they chat with their neighbors and wait for their customized burgers to come out of the kitchen.

Dining at The Counter's counter is a communal experience, even if you're there with another person. That was the first of many things I found myself enjoying about the place. Parking? A breeze -- there's a huge parking garage behind The Counter's building (which also houses the 360 Sports Bar, some offices and a few other businesses still under construction). Atmosphere? Decidedly laidback. Service? You'd be hard-pressed to know that yesterday was their first day.

This bodes well for the burger joint, which already seems prepared for the swell of people that will most likely crash down upon the place like a tidal wave during the evening hours along Washington Avenue. The Counter is open until midnight on Thursday through Saturday nights, a wise move in this area. And what better to sop up all that alcohol or prepare you for a night of dancing than milkshakes and burgers?

I do fear that it's this attitude that might mean The Counter's concept goes unappreciated by some folks, but it's their loss. The whole schtick here is being able to customize your burger any way you see fit -- from bun to toppings to meat to sauces -- and not just eat the first meat patty flung your way. Prepare to spend at least five minutes pouring over the menu of options before even being halfway ready to assemble your masterpiece.

Like Brown Bag Deli, you choose everything for your burger off a list with a little pencil, then hand it back to your waiter, steeple your hands and grin like a cat eating bees, greedily awaiting your prize. (Well, at least that's what I did.) My initial creation went like this: a third of a pound of beef (humanely raised Angus, if that matters to you), regular bun (they were already out of onion buns that first day), horseradish cheddar cheese, roasted Hatch chiles, sauteed onions, roasted red peppers, organic greens and horseradish mayonnaise. You can order your meat medium-rare, thank God, and they actually cook it that way.

The patty might have been the best part of the whole burger, and that's saying a lot considering the wealth of lovely, butter-softened veggies that topped the thing. The beef was perfectly pink throughout the middle -- juicy and oozing -- with a delectable crunch ringing the outside. It was messy as any roadside burger, mayo and meat juice dripping onto my arms and the plate below. Not bad for a burger from California.

My peanut butter shake, too, rivaled what you get at 59 Diner (whose butterscotch malt will be the beverage I request upon my deathbed): not too sweet, just barely drinkable through a straw. You don't get quite as much for your money, though, as the shake is just under $5 but only comes in one glass -- no extra goodness in a metal canister here. On the other hand, my fully customized burger for $8 wasn't a bad deal, especially considering that I couldn't even come close to finishing only a third-pounder.

The Counter is the kind of place that I almost wish wasn't on Washington Avenue -- I'd love to spend a lazy evening there on the weekend with friends, but the mad rush of crowds is just too much for me these days. Then again, the patio is awfully inviting in the sunshine, giving me plenty of time to work off a lunchtime burger and shake the rest of the day...

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