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Seeing as the Fourth of July is the biggest burger-munching day for Americans, I could hardly stand to face it alone. Using the scant wits I could muster up, I employed a scheme certain to get ravishingly gorgeous AHT senior editor Honey P. to Los Angeles for the weekend. Knowing Honey P's heart to be as deep as the livid pools of amber she refers to as her "eyes," I placed an urgent call to her on behalf of Irv's Burgers, the legendary West Hollywood burger stand which has been fighting to stay alive amid plans for neighborhood redevelopment. I told Honey P. she must help me help Irv's, and before I knew it, the kind, sweet soul was westbound from New York City for four wonderful days.
The sad news is that we never made it to Irv's. My search for something to surf on during a flat weekend and her desire to explore L.A.'s farthest reaches kept us too busy. The good news is that Irv's recently won a battle to overturn the designation that would see it demolished, though it's not in the clear yet. However, Honey P. and I did find ourselves at Santa Monica's The Counter, a popular designer diner with a unique Build Your Own Burger concept.
Entering the sleek eatery, with its Emeco chairs, giant open garage door, and photo exhibition of the Dogtown skate days, we were seated immediately by one of the Counter's friendly and gorgeous young waitresses (ours even scribed a smiley face and heart on our bill). Meeting us at our table were small clipboards holding smaller pencils and a checklist of everything a control freak could desire while crafting a perfect burger.
The Counter is no doubt cool, bringing a bevy of families, dates, and coworkers to the old-school-classic-meets-contemporary space. Candles line the doorway, and a long bar sits opposite a roomful of satisfied-looking guests. Browsing the menu, we found a great selection of interesting, adventurous treats to indulge in. Fried dill pickle chips, a cold meatloaf sandwich, PB & J, and something called "taco turkey" bit our interest. But the burger possibilities seemed endless. In addition to its six signature burgers and the build-your-own device, there was burger-in-a-bowl for the carbophobic, mini burgers, shakes and 50-50 onion ringfrench fry combos.
We decided to build the burger of our dreams, a challenge given the Counter's seemingly endless combinations. Diners are given a choice of beef, turkey, or veggie in 1/3 pound, 2/3 pound, and 1 pound weights. Ten choices of cheese are available, from Greek feta and Danish blue to horseradish cheddar and herb goat cheese. You can choose four toppings (additional ones are 50¢ each), which range from standards like red onion and lettuce to the exotic (for burgers, anyway), such as dried cranberries, grilled pineapple, and roasted corn and black bean salsa. $1 premium toppings include avocado, fried egg, Black Forest ham, and honey-cured bacon. Next comes the sauce section, with a staggering display of 23, ranging from apricot sauce to peanut to sweet barbecue. Bun choices are a bit more limited: English muffin, honey wheat bun, and the traditional style.
I put together something not too unconventional, a 1/3-pounder on a regular bun with jalapeño Jack, a lettuce blend, roasted red peppers, grilled onions, tomaters, and dill pickles with roasted-garlic aioli. Hot-as-a-firecracker-on-the-Fourth Honey P. put together, on a traditional bun, a 1/3-pounder with grilled onions, sautéed mushrooms, Tillamook cheddar, and the same aioli I chose. (You can see her creation toward the top of this entry.) We went with the 50-50 and refillable Cokes, and soaked in the atmosphere. Honey P. was excited to spot actress Jennifer Elsie Cox, who debuted as Jan in the Brady Bunch Movie. Soon, our 50-50 came. The wispy onion rings topped the standard fries by leaps and bounds.
Our burgers followed minutes later, impressively grand to the eyes and aromatic to the nose. I am pleased to say West Coast burger fans can believe the hype about the Counter's burgers. They were delicious and perfectly cooked, leaving it just pink enough on the inside (left).
The meat came on the top of the toppings, something I'm notoriously not crazy about, but it worked. Stuffed with fresh ingredients, my burger (right) soon fell apart under the weight of the juicy meat. The ground Angus patty was loosely formed and crumbly, the way I love it. The meat seemed to come apart in my mouth, flavorful without any signs of the grill so much as pure juiciness. Occasionally, ingredients came and went, sometimes overshadowed by the meat and cheese. Honey P said she couldn't really taste the garlic aioli, whereas I found it a tangy, smooth complement to the experience. The bun was soft, making us think it might be homemade.
The Counter burger was juicy but not greasy or drippy, a perfect balance of flavor and composition. It is a filling burger as well; the ever-organized Honey P. had to go bunless for the second half of her cleanly cut burger, while I struggled to hold mine together, getting sauce and cheese and meat all over my hands. She also said some of her onions were cut a bit too thickly, a sentiment I did not share, though I would never tell Honey P. for fear her bursting, full red lips would never speak with me again. Honey P., also an acknowledged Ranch dressing connoisseur, thought the Ranch for the amazing onion rings was "delightfully perfect." Believe me, the girl knows delightfully perfect, finding it every time she glances in a mirror.
Overall, the Counter serves more than a dozen big, savory burgers that are so fully customizable they make Fatburgers' myriad options look restrictive. This friendly, good-looking Santa Monica restaurant lends itself well to repeat visits with excellent food, good prices, and great presentation. And if you don't like the burger you built, in the end, you only have yourself to blame.
Location: 2901 Ocean Park Blvd. (at 29th St.), Santa Monica CA 90405
Price: 1/3 pound, $6.50; 2/3 pound, $8.75; 1 pound, $12.80. Four toppings included, 50¢ each additional standard topping, $1 each additional premium topping
Short Order: Build-your-own burgers perfectly cooked for traditionalists and adventurers alike