When they opened in Pasadena, on Shopper's Lane, I knew I would try it eventually, I just did not have any strong urge. But the other day my friend Carla, who is on vacation, called me and asked if I wanted to go to lunch. She is one of my favorite dining companions ever and I did not hesitate to accept. But I was still a little under the weather so I did not want a big adventure (in the past we have sometimes driven quite a ways for food.) I suggested we try The Counter.
The place was packed with business people at 12:30. This does not surprise me; that stretch of Lake Ave. has long needed a lunch option nicer than Panda Express or Rubio's and yet not as time-consuming or pricey as Smitty's or Celestino. We got a (very small) table right away, although about 15 minutes later two guys were seated right next to us, no more than ten inches from our table. There is no need to jam the tables that close together.
The Counter's claim to fame is the customer's ability to choose from about 30 toppings, 10 kinds of cheese, and 18 sauces. Now, Carla is one of the sweetest people I have ever met, but she is perhaps not the right person to create a burger from more than 312,000 possible combinations. (I did not do the math; this is what their website advertises.) "I can't decide," she repeated about a half dozen times. In the end she went with a burger of horseradish cheddar, pickles, and caramelized onions. While I thought this was a little prosaic (not that my opinion should matter one bit about her burger) the waiter commended her for going the simple route on her first trip to The Counter.
"You would be surprised how many people go overboard their first time," he laughed. "They get about twelve items and it's an absolute train wreck."
I did not bother with the custom burger, though, because their "burger of the month" sounded really good: an Argentinean halibut burger with spicy jicama, roasted red peppers, mixed baby greens, Bermuda red onions, and scallions, all served on a bun with a side of chimichurri sauce.
We started with an order of half sweet potato fries and half fried onion strings (they also have french fries you can add to the mix; several tables had them and they looked pretty good.) The onion strings were good but nothing special. The sweet potato fries were great. I have always viewed Zeke's as my favorite in the area, but I think I like these more. Although Zeke's spicy chili mayo is a better condiment than any of the three we tried: the roasted garlic aioli, horseradish mayo and barbecue sauce. (They were all good, just not great, which Zeke's spicy mayo is.)
Eventually we got our burgers. I did not take a picture of Carla's but she said it was great and she was glad she did not go overboard with the toppings. My halibut burger was amazing. It was one of the ten best things I have eaten all year. The halibut was cooked beautifully and the spicy jicama was one of the most interesting things I have ever eaten. I wish I knew how to make it; I would put it on everything from sandwiches to cereal.
There are two main complaints I have heard and read about The Counter. The first is that it's overpriced. I am not sure I agree with this. Too many people use the word "overpriced" when I think they mean to say that something isn't cheap. But something doesn't have to be inexpensive to be a good deal. For example, my halibut burger cost $13. Is that cheap? No. But was it worth it? I would say definitely. The Counter does not have cheap burger joint prices but then again it's not a cheap burger joint. The serve some above-average items and they even serve cold Red Stripe.
The second complaint with the Pasadena location is the service. This one I agree with to a certain extent. Everyone we dealt with was very nice, but the system they have in place is not conducive to a location that I imagine will always be this busy at lunchtime. We sat at our table for about ten minutes before anyone acknowledged us. It took us at least ten minutes to get our drinks. Several times I looked up and saw our waiter at tables out on the patio, or on the other side of the restaurant. And it's not like they only had a couple servers; they seemed to have an army of people working. It just didn't seem very well organized.
At one point I was done with my iced tea and asked for another. It did not arrive for 15 minutes - and then two different people brought me new iced teas and sat them down on the table. About half an hour after we had placed our order the manager came over and told us they were just plating our burgers right then. We said that was fine and he said "Thanks. I saw from your ticket that your order was placed 25 minutes ago, I just wanted to apologize that they're not ready yet."
So, as I said, it's friendly service (our waiter was very nice, too) but it's not very organized. Maybe they did not realize how busy they were going to be at lunchtime and after a while they will get a system in place that is more efficient. I will definitely try them again. Our food was great and I liked the location. I think my next trip will be for dinner.