Located on California Avenue in Palo Alto -- and part of a rapidly developing Southern California chain -- The Counter offers customers the opportunity to blueprint the burger of their dreams with a gazillion condiments, cheeses, sauces and over-the-top possibilities. Best of all, the kitchen does the cooking and assembly and gets it to you hot within a few minutes.
The menu comes with pencil and pad, and hungry you can check off your choice of 10 cheeses, 27 toppings and 17 sauces. There are three choices of bun, and, if that seems a bit of overkill, have your burger in a bowl.
The concept is not new. Remember the long-gone Hippo Burger on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, circa 1970s, which served hamburgers 100 different ways? The Counter is an updated, cleaner, sleeker version, with better ingredients and quicker service.
Imagine your one-third-pound, all-beef patty nestled on an English muffin topped with horseradish cheddar, dried cranberries, grilled pineapple, roasted chilies, spicy pepperoncinis and caramelized onion marmalade. Or, how about your burger on a honey wheat bun covered with herbed goat cheese spread, black olives, hard-boiled eggs, mixed baby greens, roasted chilies and Dijon balsamic dressing?
The Angus beef patties from Nebraska and Montana can be ordered in third-pound ($6.95), quarter-pound ($8.95) or full pound for ($12.50). No red meat, you say? The Counter also offers turkey burgers, veggie burgers and grilled chicken.
For those who are indecisive -- or develop brain freeze -- the menu lists a half-dozen Signature Burgers and a few other sandwiches, like a Stacked BLT with garlic aioli ($6.50), to help ease the burden.
Decor is in the minimalist industrial mode with brushed aluminum tables and chairs, a plain concrete floor, walls of tinted aquamarine and a serpentine counter that seats a dozen and doubles as a traditional bar. Take-out orders can be faxed or emailed ahead for quick pick-up.
Two large plasma screen TVs hang above the bar, but who cares once the burgers are served? Table conversation generally goes mute when the waiter arrives. I ate with my eyes half-closed, ignoring everything around me, focusing on the sheer beauty of the American burger in all its resplendent glory.
I tried several burger incarnations. The hamburgers were juicy and cooked to my specs -- medium well. The turkey burger was meaty and not gluey as some turkey burgers are wont to be. And the veggie burger I had in a bowl laden with gruyere cheese, jalapenos, roasted chilies, roasted red peppers and tomatoes with southwest Caesar dressing. I could barely manage half.
The fountain serves made-to-order malts and shakes ($3.50-$3.95). They don't ooze from a machine either. They are thick and creamy, blended in professional-grade Hamilton Beach 950 Drink Mixer. The only thing I didn't like was the squiggle of canned whipped cream on top.
Besides offering the eye-popping burger array, The Counter has a few other tasty morsels. The chili bowl ($4.95) was loaded with ground beef, onions, cheddar cheese and sour cream. It's non-aggressive; even your relatives from Des Moines could handle this. There is turkey chili as well ($5.95), topped with cranberries and scallions and served with hunks of toasted bread.
I was mildly disappointed with the French fries ($2.50). I was hoping for shoestring potatoes rather than the thicker-cut, doughier version served -- they were okay, just lackluster. The sweet potato fries ($4), on the other hand, were excellent, and the onion rings ($3.75) were just greasy enough to make them scrumptious. Best of all, you can order "Fifty-Fifty" and combine any of the two ($3.50-$5.50).
There are a few desserts, too, if you really think you should. The teeth-chattering sweet apple crumble was a deep dish of apples, flour, butter and buckets of sugar. Believe me, enough to share.
Besides the crumble, there was a caramel and chocolate brownie the husky male waiter suggested I would not be able to finish. I didn't take the bet. Also offered was an oversized chocolate-chip cookie, and a chocolate burger: a donut filled with chocolate mousse, strawberries and bananas. All desserts are $4; add $1.50 for a la mode.
There are not many burger joints that have a liquor license. The Counter does and features specialty drinks such as a root beer fizz ($8) made with Stoli Vanilla, root beer schnapps and ginger ale. There are a dozen beers ($4-$6) and a wine list with a bit of everything.
So far, The Counter has struck gold with its initial endeavors. With but one store in Santa Monica, the operation has garnered national attention. GQ Magazine listed The Counter as one of "The 20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die," and, gadzooks, even Oprah declared it her favorite burger.
With the Palo Alto location open since August, franchise co-owner Peter Katz said the restaurant is already serving 400 to 600 patrons daily. On weekends, there can be long lines. There are also a few tables on the street-side patio.
Katz said the next Counter opening will be at Santana Row in San Jose next spring.
Overall, The Counter has not really reinvented the all-American hamburger as much as extended its potential with a proliferation of astonishing possibilities.
With great burgers, an interesting concept, arresting menu, bare-bones yet stylish decor, a non-greedy pricing policy and an attendant wait staff, how can they not be smashingly successful?
Wait. Leaping lizards! I think they forgot the ketchup.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: yes
Noise level: loud
Bathroom cleanliness: good
369 California Ave.
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sun. 1-8 p.m.