The Counter, Reston, Va./Los Angeles
For as long as the hamburger has been around, people have been coming up with different ways to customize the classic slab of beef on bread to their liking. Sure, the burger might have started from humble beginnings when Louis Lassen created the hamburger in 1895 and only offered cheese, tomato and onion as toppings (and that’s still true at Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Conn., to this day), but as time has gone on, people have gotten more and more adventurous with what they choose to put on their burger.
The hamburger has now been around for 118 years, and from the sheer richness of the Blue Shroom Burger at Vortex to the incredible idea of ham and peppers (among other things) on the signature burger at the Thurman Cafe to the pastrami-topped cheeseburger at Crown Burgers to the inside-out Juicy Lucy to the sheer ridiculousness that is the Johnny B. Goode Burger at Rockies Diner, there’s really not a whole lot that you can’t put between two slices of bread or a bun.
At The Counter, which started in the Los Angeles area and has since made its way as far east as Ireland, that’s exactly the point. If the restaurant serves it, it’s totally fair game, and not just in the typical way of asking a server if you’re allowed to add or substitute something. This, after all, is an L.A.-based restaurant, and if there’s one thing that sums up Los Angeles, it’s that the City of Angels enjoys being a little bit (or a lot) different than everyone else. At a place that proudly boasts “the Counter Culture” and claims it was “anti-established” in 2003, doing things the traditional way would never fly.
Instead, The Counter puts you in complete control by handing you a pencil and an ordering pad, with instructions to pick whatever your heart desires from their ridiculous list of fresh, high-brow toppings, broken down into meat, cheese, toppings, premium toppings, sauce and bun. Yes, ordering here is a six-step process, and really, that’s a large part of the fun. If you really can’t handle choices, you can opt for one of The Counter’s seven signature burgers, but no additions or substitutions are allowed. Welcome to the Counter Culture.
The hard part is choosing what exactly to put on your burger, given The Counter’s plethora of choices. First, you have five choices for the meat, with beef, chicken, turkey, bison and a vegan patty available. That’s followed with your choice from 11 cheeses, a list of 22 regular toppings, nine premium toppings, 22 sauces and five types of buns. The standard burger at The Counter (really, is there a such thing as a standard burger here?) comes with one cheese, one sauce and up to four of the regular toppings. Each of the premium toppings, which include things such as mushrooms, bacon, fried eggs and guacamole, adds a dollar to your final price, while anything over four of the standard toppings (things such as spinach, tomatoes, pickles and black olives) will tack on 75 cents.
By my count, you’ve got 65 options to pick from, and by The Counter’s, at least 312,120 burger combinations are possible. That means that the staff rarely makes the same burger twice in a day, and if their math is accurate, a person could eat at The Counter every day for 855 years and never order the same burger more than once. That’s pretty incredible, and that meant Amy and I were pretty excited to give this place a try when we pulled into the Reston Town Center.
For my first trip to The Counter, I knew that I had to try the beef. I’ve had non-beef burgers before on many occasions, but when a place is known for its burgers, unless there’s a patty involved that’s truly rare, beef is the litmus test. From there, I decided to customize it with plenty of old favorites. The hardest decision might have been the cheese, but when it came down to it, I absolutely love the taste of Gruyere, a nutty and melty cheese that’s most similar to Swiss cheese. Gruyere is both high-quality and high-cost, which means it’s not likely to show up on a burger at most places. Of course, that means it makes perfect sense for The Counter to use it, and I wasn’t going to waste my opportunity. I added baby spinach, marinated artichokes, sauteed onions, tomatoes, guacamole and mushrooms, along with basil pesto and a ciabatta bun to cap off my masterpiece.
That’s exactly what it was. This burger was huge and delicious. Fresher is always better, and the use of fresh ingredients really shows up in every bite here. The bun held everything together, the burger was juicy, the vegetables were cooked to perfection when necessary and the Gruyere and basil pesto worked beautifully with the toppings. You really couldn’t ask for anything more from a burger. I would venture that the other toppings are just as incredible.
Amy, who hates beef in any and all forms, opted for a chicken breast and tossed mushrooms, pickles, avocado and an herbed goat cheese spread on it, along with roasted garlic aioli. Amy has decided that after this visit, she’s a huge fan of garlic aioli, and it’s easy to see why. The mayonnaise-like spread is fantastic on pretty much anything, and with her choice of flavors, it was an easy complement. The avocado is fantastic, and the goat cheese spread was so good that I wasn’t sure whether it or the Gruyere was a better choice. I’m giving the nod to the Gruyere, but not by much.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the other outstanding part of The Counter experience, and that would be their fries. Fries go with burgers like soap goes with water, and The Counter serves up some good ones. However, as good as their regular fries are, I wouldn’t recommend ordering them, at least not on their own. That’s because if you do, you’ll miss the truly special fries that The Counter offers: sweet potato fries. I’m admittedly not the biggest fan of sweet potatoes, but something about these fries just makes them work beautifully. The hint of sweetness in each bite with the typical fry taste and texture is something special, and I thoroughly enjoyed every one of my fries.
If that was the only twist, though, this wouldn’t be The Counter. To its credit, The Counter again offers choices to its customers in this department. Can’t decide between the regular and sweet potato fries, or are you wanting to try the onion strings along with fries? No problem. All you have to do is order a “Fifty-Fifty”, and you get two half-orders of your choice of two of the regular fries, sweet potato fries and onion strings. Perfect compromise.
When inspiration meets dedication, the result is usually a good one. When that result also runs into a combination of quality, imagination and a flair for being as different as it wants to be, success is basically a sure thing. If you really love burgers and really love dictating exactly what goes on them, you have to make a trip to The Counter.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Burgers can be had for either one.
Wait during my visit: Not bad, but we did decide to live up to the name and eat at the counter. If you have a larger party, you might wait longer.
Location: The Counter has 33 spots in the United States, most in California. However, Amy and I visited The Counter at 11922 Democracy Drive in Reston, Va.
Cost: Quality isn’t cheap. A standard 1/3 pound burger will run you $9, plus $1 for every premium topping you add. Meanwhile, fries will cost between $3.50 and $6.50. They’re worth the price.
Parking: Plenty, but you might have to pay. The Reston Town Center has a lot of garage spots for a price, but if you come on a weekend, you park for free.
Seating arrangement: This place is called The Counter. Enough said. There are also tables available for those who don’t want to sit on a stool (or can’t).
Website: The Counter
Specialty items: Burgers, sweet potato fries