When the Counter announced their first OC franchise would debut in Irvine, the anticipation was thicker than the beef patties I had already heard so much about. To the burger aficionado, its fame was widespread long before the ink dried on the Irvine Co. lease. The Counter's original Santa Monica locale has been written about to death on foodie blogs, gabbed about on Good Morning America and hip-checked in GQ. Then there's Oprah: One mention on her show sent sales skyward, paving the way for expansion.
The Counter's rep is built on customer empowerment. Their burgers are endlessly customizable. I'm talking the kind of control you didn't know you always wanted. Their website claims at least 312,120 different combinations. Want to verify this? Better use factorials.
Once inside, a clipboard with a checklist is presented in lieu of a menu. On it, you pencil in your choice of meat, cheese, toppings, sauce and bun. Aside from the junior high Scantron pop-quiz flashbacks, it's an efficient way to order. Want horseradish, Cheddar and goat cheese? A whole pound of beef, instead of the standard third-pounder? Bubble 'em in! How about dried cranberries, roasted chiles and peanut sauce? Why not? Four toppings and a sauce are included free. Pepto? Alka Seltzer? You're on your own.
It'd been scarcely a week since the opening, and the place was already packed. My friends and I were in a sea of heads, crowded inside an octagonal enclosure that looked like the Ultimate Fighting cage. A wide window rolled up like a garage door. The bar was lined with rows of wine bottles, and imported beer flowed from taps. Squeezing themselves between the aluminum tables was a serving crew recruited from local high schools and colleges. As expected, everyone was more than a little overwhelmed, especially the kitchen.
Our order of limp fries and crumbly onion strings was polished off even before the burgers showed up, dipped in thimbles of sugary apricot, tangy barbecue and watery ranch sauces. Unlike its distant relative the zucchini, the deep-fried pickles don't need sauce. Also better than their paler cousins were the sweet potato fries--a crunchier, sturdier, tastier starch.
Twenty thumb-twiddling minutes later, our custom-designed burgers arrived, built as a precarious stack, overloaded with stuff--the sandwich equivalent of a sea lion balancing a ball on its nose, teetering with flailing flippers atop another ball. Twice as tall as it was wide, it was impossible to hold; one wrong move, and the messy tower would tumble like Jenga. (Also, unless you're Mr. Fantastic or Elastigirl, there's no hope of getting your mouth around it.)
Giving up my grip, I took to a fork and ate the thing in stages. The dry patty tasted almost like bland meatloaf, as it was densely packed and grilled to a uniform degree of doneness: thoroughly brown with no pink, despite the promise of medium. My friend complained that his chicken sandwich was overcooked, too, and they forgot the lettuce.
Two weeks later, we returned to a completely different story. First, we were offered a choice: Did we want the fries as a starter, or as a side with our burgers? It didn't matter, though, because the sandwiches came out promptly, not more than a few minutes after the fried items. The meat was cooked to the correct shade of rosy. Drinks were topped off without having to ask. Empty plates, whisked away with a smile. Our evening was nothing short of choreographed.
But just as the staff wisened up to their rookie mistakes, so did I. I put down my pencil and ordered "The Old School." And there it was: the perfect burger. Cheddar, lettuce, tomato, pickle, shaved red onion and bun. No froufrou toppings. Nothing but the essentials. Best of all, it fit snugly in my hands. I wasn't eating chopped steak with a fork anymore. This was the hamburger I had been waiting for all these months: a juicy, beefy, textbook-thick patty, eaten as the sandwich it was always meant to be.
The Counter is finally open in Irvine. And Oprah? Say hi to Obama for us, will ya?
The Counter, 6416 Irvine Blvd., Irvine, (949) 336-7272; www.thecounterburger.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $30, food only. Beer and wine.
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