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The Counter (burgers, Palo Alto)

As I've seen reported in earlier messages, the Counter -- Santa Monica's upscale burger joint -- has opened in Palo Alto. They opened yesterday, but today was the first day they served lunch, as it turned out, and I trekked over from my office in Mountain View.

What the Counter's claim to fame is--you may know this already--the choices. I had my burger with cheddar, grilled onion, roasted chile and baby greens, with garlic aioli on a honey wheat bun. Would you rather have a turkey burger with herb goat cheese, roasted red peppers, sprouts and ginger soy glaze on an English muffin? No problem. Carrot strings? Grilled pineapple? Horseradish cheddar? Whatever.

But that's literally dressing. I gotta say, I was curious but had a bit of trepidation from some of the love/hate messages in the LA area board, as well as a couple dismissive replies here. But I'm pretty firmly on the love side, at least with the burger I had today. Good quality beef, cooked medium, and really medium: pink on the inside, crusty on the outside, juicy enough the bun got a bit soggy (I forgive them). I saw some complaints here about the burger being small, but if that was small, these folks are used to bigger burgers than I am. (The menu claims their weights are measured _after_ cooking, not before; whether or not that's true, it certainly didn't seem like less than a third of a pound to me.) The fries were also pretty good--not rave-worthy, but well-cooked, well-salted, and not greasy. They're also pretty substantial--one order is enough for two people, I'd say.

I know one burger isn't enough of a data set to draw firm conclusions on, and as much as I liked the place I doubt I'll fulfill the server's cheerful "See you tomorrow!" when I left. But at the least, I'll certainly be back for more data points!

(Since burgers are pretty subjective, I've also tried Kirk's, Val's, Luka's Taproom, Jeffrey's in San Mateo, Clarke's, Mojo Burger, Quinn's Lighthouse, and the Girl and the Fig. Val's I liked the most, and Clarke's the least--Quinn's just about ties, but probably by virtue of being ridiculously big, served on great sourdough and smeared with garlic butter.)

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  1. Haven't heard of this. What happens if you order all 54 toppings? (Apparently, young people like to try these sorts of crazy challenges: http://jimmylin.imeem.com/blogentry/8...


    What do you think about the Palo Alto Creamery? Last time I ordered they told me it's Niman Ranch beef so I could have it medium rare without fear. (I'm usually a grilled chicken sandwich guy, so I won't try to offer any comparative assessment.)

    4 Replies
    1. re: Jefferson

      I've had Peninsula creamery and the Counter and I like the Counter better. The meat seems like it is better seasoned and the burger is also juicier. The Counter's best claim is that you can put whatever you want on it whereas Peninsula is pretty standard (with or without cheese). The buns at the Counter are vastly superior to Peninsula Creamery.

      I went to The Counter on Tuesday night and it was quite well packed for opening week (2nd day of opening)

      1. re: peachblossom

        > Peninsula is pretty standard (with or without cheese).

        Palo Alto Creamery at the corner of Emerson & Hamilton? They do a bit more than that, like mushroom/swiss; bacon/avocado; Dom Perignon combo. But I agree the meat is lean, less juicy than what you would make yourself at home.

        1. re: Jefferson

          You're correct. My mistake. Peninsula Creamery does offer the other options but I think of them all as standard since there are lots of other burger places (even Chilis) which allow for the mushroom/swiss combo, etc. The Counter is unique in that the combos can be as atrocious/delicious as you desire

      2. re: Jefferson

        Went to Peninsula once. It was abominable, had a bone dry french dip and fries that were hard as in undercooked in the middle. It seems like the once fry their fries (instead of the twice trick to get the insides fluffy and the outsides crispy).

      3. Where is the Counter in Palo Alto?

        5 Replies
          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Thanks! I'm in Palo Alto week-days for a while and will try it soon.

            1. re: Mick Ruthven

              Mick, since you're in the neighborhood, you might want to check out BBQ Man on Willow Rd. in Menlo Park which took over Tara's space. It's been open a couple months. I haven't tried it yet, but my brother says that it can be good but the quality varies widely. Sounds like it has potential if you catch 'em on a good day.

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                Thanks for that. I've heen pretty heavy on the meat this week so I'll probably get there some time next week.

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  I've tried BBQ Man, I haven't posted because they are really nice, but it isn't great. I think the meat might be well cooked but it isn't that flavorful and it gets served in a lake of sauce. I need to go back and get sauce on the side. I'm not a BBQ snob (this doesn't mean I'm not experienced, it means that I realize there are a lot of traditions, and they are different everywhere). The BBQ man seems like a guy who just wanted to have a BBQ place- it is worth a try, just get the sauce on the side. He takes store bought sauce and kicks it up (from a review on the web- local paper I think). I had the brisket, ribs, chicken combo. The chicken had a deeply smoky flavor but was a little dry. The ribs were meaty, pretty decently trimmed spareribs that didn't have too strong a flavor, but were really tender, which made me suspect par-boiling, but maybe not. They still had the membrane on the back (I don't mind that, I know that aficianados would poohpooh such a thing). Brisket was well cooked but tender, served sliced. Not super smoky, but it was "OK." What I mean by that is I really like brisket, so I like eating it even if it is just OK. I cook a much better brisket myself, but I'm not gonna say anything there is inedible.

                  This report is more a prediction that some people on this board might be disapointed if they make special trip. Service was nice and friendly.

          2. I had lunch (takeout) at the Counter in Palo Alto today and it was a very good and large burger, larger than any 1/3 lb burger I've had. I also had their mixed-greens salad, which included tomatoes and red onions, pretty good and $2.95 I think. Not much to add except I'll go back when it's time for another burger (not too often...).

            1. I give it a decent "thumbs up" for now. Had a fairly standard burger with only bermuda red onion for the "meat test". Burger was very good ... I would rate it equal or slightly better than the old Kirk's on CA Ave and better than anything I've had on the Peninsula lately. 1/3 lb (after cooking), cooked perfectly Med Rare per my request, good bun with, it seems, some butter? on it before it hit the grill. The onion was sweet & very fresh. Had the fries/onion strings combo. Fries ok -- I've had better ( I think even In & Out's are better); they were cooked too crisply for my taste and lost some of the potato flavor. Onion strings I don't get; in most restaurants these taste like somebody opened a can of onion strings and threw them in the toaster oven for a few minutes. These were no exception. This seems like the kind of place that should make killer, homemade onion rings, but they don't.
              Service was fine but they are clearly working some kinks out (open only 4 days). It is not clear what to do when you enter the restaurant -- , no signs like "order here", etc, no obvious hostess stand by the door. The people who brought the food didn't seem to be able to match the tables with the orders, and my table had no salt/pepper. I was at one of the outdoor tables, so maybe the problems were specific to that area. I like the "fill out your own form" approach to ordering, but they should also put a checkbox on the form re how you want your burger cooked ... in fact, I don't understand why the self-order form only includes the "build your own burger" stuff ... why not order fries, drinks, etc the same way? It should reduce the kitchen errors. My burger, 50/50, and drink was over $13 ... I don't know what the going burger rate is these days, but that seems high to me.
              All in all ... very good burger, worth another try.

              1 Reply
              1. re: doc

                I really love onion strings with burgers, it is hard to explain. It is one of the positives about going to Kirk's (getting strings AND potato wedges)

              2. If you are looking for a deliciously juicy burger and large battered onion rings try Main Street Burger in Los Gatos. The meat is from Harris Ranch and is hormone and antibiotic free.

                1. The Burger was fine, my sweet-potato fry's were OK (the dipping sauce that came with it was embarrassingly bad.) It would have been nice to have my fry's and soda's within 10 minutes of getting my burger. I was there at 3:30; this wasn't the lunch rush hour.

                  They haven't seemed to have gotten the wait staff, kitchen, ordering and getting food to your table together yet. Given the number of staff talking to each other and talking to vendors there's certainly not an issue of understaffing. I hope that someone wakes up and gets that its the "customer experience" not the glittzy menu or fancy bar that will have customers return.

                  1. HAHA- doubtful they will get over the "kinks" I have been to the one in Santa Monica, and the confusion of where to stand/wait/order is still alive and well at that site. Be grateful the service is..for now...pleasant. Service in S.M. is very rude.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: running pig

                      The company's stated goal as they expand to 400 to 600 branches nationally is to duplicate the atmosphere of the original.

                    2. I tried the Counter for the first time today. The burger was good, the fries were good, and the sweet potato fries were great (I got those two in a 50/50 mix). Service was fine. But it's nowhere close to a great burger like Burgermeister in Cole Valley, and it's a lot more expensive.


                      1. I was there this evening as well. I really enjoyed the 50/50 mix of fries and onion strings, although my dining companion suspected both of being previously frozen. The burgers were good but not great. I liked the toppings, and thought the meat quality was about average. The large quantity of toppings and thick patties make eating a very messy process. The roasted garlic aioli I tried packed a powerful garlic kick in a pleasantly creamy base and was one of my favorite parts of the meal

                        We sat at the bar and had a great view of the kitchen and pass. The servers and busboys were friendly and efficient, but the expediter fell to pieces whenever more than 4 burgers appeared at the pass at once. We witnessed many burgers getting tragically cold as she spent long minutes figuring out what sauce went on which plate, with servers standing around waiting for their dishes. My boyfriend and I debated whether we should say something to the manager, but decided in the end that we didn't want to get her fired, and perhaps over time she would improve or be reassigned.

                        1. Not a bad addition to the Peninsla/South Bay at the fast food level. The meat is juicy but a tad bit flavorless (needs to be seasoned with salt) but overall for a local burger fix, very much above average.

                          1. I've tried The Counter a few times. Outside of really confused service (the bar's service is a bit better), the meat is also a bit all over the place. The first time, I had a perfectly juicy, medium burger. But each time after, it got more done. I also think the patty itself is pretty darn big. For a wieldy bite, don't add too many toppings. They aren't great at positioning them so that it doesn't slop all over the place. (I even had a BLT that had various components slipping out of it, so the positioning problem is not just limited to its burgers).

                            Also fries are often soggy and often come out cold. If you get melted cheese on them, the cheese just solidifies onto the soggy fries.

                            1. My fries were piping hot, crisp to the point of being the exact opposite of soggy. I did the takeout thing so maybe things get to the customer faster than table service...

                              1. I've had 6 meals at the Counter, and I still don't know how to review it. I guess the best word is "inconsistent"; the worst is might be "random". Some stats:

                                * 1/6 times ... everything was absolutely perfect for all 4 people, including the service
                                * 4/6 times the burger was overcooked, even when I specified medium rare on the form and alerted the waiter (burgers are cooked "medium" if not specified). "Medium" seems to vary from medium to well-done
                                * 3/6 times the burger for at least one person was "wrong", eg an ingredient left off, wrong cheese, etc
                                * 3/6 times fries were great, 2/6 times they were way overcooked, 1/6 just cold
                                * 3/6 times instant service at the front desk; 3/6 total confusion at the front desk
                                * 2/6 times the staff delivered the wrong meal to our table ... these were not minor mistakes, eg tried to give us "burger bowls" vs sandwiches

                                All in all the food is decent, the concept is good. I think I prefer the original Kirk's to the Counter for quality & flavor of beef.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: doc

                                  Gotta agree with you doc. This place is way to inconsistent to warrant a repeat visit. There are so many other burger joints that serve a better tasting burger at a better price. And you won't have to deal with their ridiculous service. I definitely prefer Kirk's or Jeffrey's in San Mateo by far. And you can get a good shake at the Creamery.

                                  1. re: VirgoBlue

                                    The Counter is a national franchise with dozens of locations opening nationwide in the next year or so.


                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      i also heard they're hoping to have hundreds open in the next few years. an empire of sorts. they got one good mention on Oprah and they took that publicity and ran with it.

                                      they've got to iron out the consistant kinks, though.

                                2. love the root beer float!

                                  1. I just tried there yesterday with my hubby, since it was close to our class, and I liked it - We neglected to read before that the burger weights were AFTER cooking, so we both ordered the 2/3 lb burger - way too big esp. since we also ordered a 50/50 of sweet potato fries (highly recommended!) and the onion strings (good and crunchy, but oily) - liked the fact that they include 3 different dipping sauces (BBQ, ranch, and horseradish mayo) with the fries.

                                    I also ordered a shake (strawberry/banana)- it was nice to see real chunks of strawberries and bananas, and it wasn't too sweet - I managed to finish the glass by myself (unlike at PA creamery, where it's HUGE)

                                    The burgers were pretty good, mine was a little more medium, my hubby's was a little more done - he ordered and liked the grilled onions, and we both ordered sauteed mushrooms, which had some good flavor.

                                    When you order the burger, the price ($8.95 for 2/3 lb) includes cheese (extra is $1), 4 toppings (extra is .50), and a sauce and roll (unless you choose the burger in a bowl for those on a low carb diet)

                                    I got Gruyere (nicely melted and good flavor), dill pickle chips, mixed baby greens, and tomatoes along with the mushrooms. I have to say that even though I'm not a huge burger person, I did enjoy the burger - The meat was good (Angus) and not too dry or overcooked. Neither one of us could finish (due to full and lack of time), and had to take the other half of our burger home.

                                    I think I'll try burger in a bowl next time; the person next to me got that and it looked huge (probably cuz the greens), and I want to try the fried pickles (heard that they are good too) -

                                    For burgers, it's a little expensive ($32 + tip for 2 of us), but the concept is kinda cool, and on top of that, they have a full bar if you want to have a drink.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: sandrachang

                                      I was there this past weekend. They told us ahead of time that the kitchen was slow (this was a Sunday) and it's true...it was very slow. Plus our waiter tried to be a good waiter when he was around and that wasn't often.

                                      The burgers were good - the fries I thought were great - crispy and hot. There was some trouble with my burger since I wanted it with both swiss and chedder and it only came with cheddar. I sent it back so that they could just melt cheddar cheese on it and waited and waited. Finally after about 5 minutes, it came back. How long does it take to melt some cheese??

                                      I actually thought it was fairly priced. My partner and I had two 1/3 lb burgers, two orders of frieds, one soda and one iced tea and it was about $23.

                                      I think the decor is nice and the staff means well, but I could probably find a better burger and better service somewhere else. The gimmick of getting to choose what's on your burger really isn't that impressive.

                                    2. Has anyone tried those fried dill pickle chips? I moved to Charlotte earlier this year and have to admit that I'm a bit of an addict. My Bay Area friends who have come out to visit have all become deep fried pickle converts but no one has yet ventured down to Palo Alto to try them at The Counter.

                                      A good version should be tempura-like. Crispy yet light and not too greasy. Almost like those tempura Blue Lake beans I used to get at House years ago.

                                      1. I'm still trying to like this place because there don't seem to be any good burger alternatives near palo alto -- and yes, I've been to Kirks, Clarkes, Creamery, Goose, the O, etc. While the food is decent & the concept is very good, the service and logistics are still buried in amateur hour. I think I've been there 6 or 7 times, and the norm is that at least one person's order gets screwed up somehow -- usually at least one of the cheeses or toppings is missing or wrong. This is baffling since each order is completed via checkboxes by the customer. If you want to entertain yourself, watch one of the runners pick up an order from the kitchen and time how long it takes him/her to find the proper table to deliver it to. The record so far is 6 tables and 3 minutes for an order of fries. This has been a problem from day one, and for the life of me, I don't understand why they can't fix it.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: doc

                                          yup! that's exactly what i wrote above. they messed up my order. i guess maybe with time, they'll get things right?

                                        2. Gave TheCounter a second try last night, as Soon Tofu was closed and I wanted BEEF.

                                          Place was packed. I think I would have been waiting about 20 minutes to sit if I sat inside - this at about 8pm on a Sunday. Order was only slightly messed up - no drink until I asked where my order was, after getting my burger (iced tea).

                                          The fries were decent. I prefer a thicker cut, their style being halfway to shoestring, but crispy, hot, and plentiful. Can't fault that.

                                          Choose your own toppings is a win - I think they've updated their topping list, and I chose a combo I liked and you'd never find anywhere else - blue cheese, pineapple, tomato, jalapenos, BBQ sauce.

                                          The bun was way, way, way too small. It did appear to be better than your usual bun - custom contract baked, or something. Had a nice taste, although I could have used it more chewy. But the bun did not hold the burger - a serious problem. I noticed the next table got "burger in a bowl", which might be my next try there.

                                          The burger was far overcooked. Dry and grey. The order form doesn't specify what cooking you want, and I didn't think of asking. Something in the pink and juicy section is fine by me: this was not that. Even overcooked, I did still taste some beefy goodness, so the meat may have been OK. But --- overcooked. Way overcooked.

                                          Price out the door was $15, burger - fries - iced tea. Would have been $10 at Taxis (an inferior burger), so I might have to retract my statement about the prices there - they're OK.

                                          Kind of fun, but for the actual quality of the burger, give me peninsula creamery - they get the basics right, even if they don't use charcoal. Bun covers burger, burger not overcooked, no line. Sometimes, it's the simple things.

                                          4 Replies
                                          1. re: bbulkow

                                            When the Counter gets it right, they do really well -- at least in my top five burgers, and their toppings are a lot of fun. But, as so many other people have pointed out, they're really inconsistent, and at those prices they really need to get their act together. I'll probably try them again (I haven't been back in a few months), but from what I've gathered it's still a dice roll, which is unfortunate.

                                            1. re: Chipotle

                                              I find Jeffrey's to be more consistent than the Counter. Last time I went to the Counter, I made the mistake of choosing the English Muffin as the bread choice. I like my English Muffins toasted with butter and mine came out cold and rubbery and non-buttered. (Jeffrey's is going to open up in Menlo Park so it's not too far of a drive from Palo Alto).

                                              1. re: frellis

                                                The toppings are a nice touch, as are all the aoli's, etc. I've never had bad fries there, and particularly like the sweet potato version.

                                                But my burger - the meat - has never been all that great. It's not particularly juicy or flavorful.

                                                On the other hand, I've never had a bad burger at Burger Joint in the city. Not fancy, just good.

                                                1. re: epicurious_sf

                                                  Ironically, I just read in the Chronicle today that they'll be opening a Burger Joint in Burlingame on Primrose soon! Another one is also coming around AT&T Park.