Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Counter - Irvine

When The Counter announced that their first O.C. franchise was debuting in Irvine, the anticipation was thicker than those beef patties I had already heard so much about. To the chowhound, its notoriety was familiar long before the ink dried on their Irvine Company lease. After all, the L.A. success story has been written-to-death on bulletin boards, gabbed about on Good Morning America, hip-checked on GQ.

It was even on friggin' Oprah fer cryin' out loud!

Short of butchering your own cow, The Counter's claim to fame is customer empowerment. Their burger is endlessly customizable. I'm talkin' the kind of control you didn't know you always wanted. Their website purports at least 312,120 different combinations. Want to verify this? Better use factorials. Remember factorials?

A clipboard with a checklist is presented in lieu of a menu. On it you mark your choice of meat, cheese, toppings, sauce and bun. Aside from the junior high Scantron pop-quiz flashbacks you'll get (remember Scantrons?) it's an efficient way to order.

Want horseradish cheddar and goat cheese? Check it!

A topping of roasted corn and black bean salsa? Mark away.

How about dried cranberries, peanut sauce, all on an English muffin? Go for it.

Pepto? Alka Seltzer? You're on your own.

So, with bated breath, I waited, not unlike that Mervyns lady. "Open, open, open."

"Coming Summer 2007," its white stenciled windows said. But June came and went. So did July, August, September and October.

By November, I had lost patience. In the meantime I rediscovered The Royal Robin Burger at Red Robin. It came with bottomless steak fries. Life was good.

Then it finally happened: The Counter's Irvine outpost was open for business. Although going there was like forgiving a long lost friend who had struck it rich and forgot all about you, it's easy to welcome someone who brings food.

Scarcely a week and the place was packed. My friends and I were in a sea of heads, crowded inside an octagon enclosure that looked like the Ultimate Fighting cage.

A wide window rolls up like a garage door. The bar is lined with rows of wine bottles and beer flows from taps. Flitting about, squeezing themselves between the aluminum tables, was a crew of Abercrombie hopefuls. They're trained to be helpful and happy. But everyone's still a little green, especially in the kitchen.

Our order of fries and onion strings ($3.95)-- limp and crunchy, respectively -- was polished off even before the burgers showed up, dipped in thimbles of sugary apricot, tangy BBQ, and watery ranch sauces. But the deep fried pickles ($4.00) don't need no sauce, unlike its cousin: the deep fried zucchini.

Twenty minutes later, the burgers ($7.95) arrived, built as a precarious stack; the sandwich equivalent of a seal balancing a ball on its nose, teetering with flailing flippers on top of another ball. It's twice as tall as it is wide, so it's tricky to grasp. One wrong move and the tower tumbles like Jenga.

The toasted buns have the sturdy crust of ciabatta. The grilled onions are past the point of cooked to become a spreadable onion paste. The patty, two fingers thick, tastes almost like meatloaf. It's densely packed and grilled to a uniform degree of doneness.

It's about time The Counter opened. But why then am I still craving that Red Robin burger?

The Counter
(949)336-7272
6416 Irvine Boulevard
Irvine, CA 92620

To read Christian's post on OC Food Blogs, CLICK HERE.
To read an updated review on a second visit, CLICK HERE.

36 Comments:

At 2:25 AM, Blogger digkv said...

I can't believe it's opened already. I really have to go there now. I must admit I first heard of this place in that GQ article a while back. That burger looks huge and ginormous but I too will confess that the Royal Red Robin Burger is quite amazing bacon, cheese, egg: those breakfast components make my mouth water. I love how the egg yolk runs out and blends with the meat and oh I'm salivating right now.

 
At 3:15 AM, Blogger Kai said...

Wow, those burgers are huge! It is a shame that they didn't taste as good as they looked. Hopefully, with time, they will improve.

 
At 11:16 AM, Anonymous van said...

I love this place! It's perfect for me since everytime I order somewhere there is always a deviation from the standard menu item - the sweet potato fries are amazing, so try them next time. The Counter is definitely one of the top burger places in SoCal - the best is still the Apple Pan in Los Angeles.

 
At 2:20 PM, Blogger Scotty Tran said...

Oh man, those burgers look huge.
You're supposed to eat those monsters with forks, right? They seem to big to fit in the mouth like a normal burger. It's a bit of a disappointment that they don't taste as good as they look, but the customization seems reminiscent of a Subway chain restaurant. These guys have more customization though, and that's always a plus. The most hyped burger restaurant I've ever gone to is In-N-Out, so I guess I have a lot more to explore in the burger world.

 
At 8:49 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

digkv,

That Royal Red Robin Burger reminds me of the "Good Morning Burger" from the Simpsons. And it's every bit as good as you say. A fried egg never met a better friend than a burger. When you think about it, there are three species of farm animal inside that thing.

Kai,

Yeah, I'm sure they'll get their better as time progresses. And actually they're more tall than huge. The patties are substantial though. They're not messing around in the meat department.

van,

Saw those sweet potato fries immediately after we order our regular ones...and immediately regretted not going for it. Next time for sure.

Scotty,

You pretty much have to use a fork when everything tumbles. This is also an expensive burger when you think about it too. $7 bucks can get you a Four-by-four at In-N-Out!

 
At 10:13 PM, Blogger Diamond Dog said...

Went here tonight because of Elmo's blog.

Its not bad, but I won't repeat. It taste like a burger if I were to make it at home. I don't like going to places like that. I want to go to places where you can only get the flavor at that place. In-N-Out is this way. Even Carl's Jr.

Burger is a huge piece of meat which I feel is all you can taste and there is nothing special about the flavor.

I dont like the greasy buns that they must spray with a coating of oil before serving.

Onion rings at Jack IN the Box taste better or at Knowlwoods. Fries were uninspired. 2 people cost us about 30 bucks for something that taste as if I made a burger at home

 
At 10:02 AM, Blogger MessyJessy said...

Oh my goodness!!!! Now I have a craving for a thick juicy burger and steak fries from Red Robin!

I've never heard of "The Counter" but the pics make me wish that I did! How do you eat it? Its massive!!! I've always been a sucker for a great burger! Mmmm...wish I was eating one now!
:)

 
At 10:16 AM, Blogger Marvin said...

The Counter's in Irvine? Holy crap! I've never been, but I've read so much about the one in Santa Monica and I've always wanted to give it a try. I know you've said you're not much of a drinker elmo, but do you know what kinds of beer they had on tap there? Microbrews?

I'm a frequenter of Father's Office whenever I'm in LA, and it's their beers that keep me a loyal customer, not necessarily their burger. If the Counter has some decent brews on tap, I may have to check it out.

 
At 10:55 AM, Blogger Krizia said...

Marvin is an alchy :)

Elmo, you monster. This place is genius! I'm not a super fan of Red Robin (don't hate me!). But admittedly, I haven't tried the 'Royal Red Robin' (again, don't hate me!). Which one would you recommend I try first? The 'RRR'? or a 'The Counter' creation? My body can only take so many calories...

 
At 12:36 PM, Anonymous mikester said...

Hi Elmo,

Great review, as Always !

My wife and I went last week, we thought it was really good, our sampler of fried items (regular fries, sweet potato fries, and the pickles) were great. I'm a fan of skinnier fries over steak fries, so these fries were right up my alley.

Those burgers are massive indeed, and I tried to pick mine up only once, before admitting defeat and using a knife and fork. BTW, I recommend checking off the roasted green chiles, if you're into that, because it was great esp. with the provolone and the garlic aioli....

To answer Marvin's question, the beers on offer were good but nothing too out of the ordinary - two domestic microbrewery wheats, a Newcastle, and Fat Tire. I actually recommended Anchor Steam beer on tap, it's a classic and I think would play well with the food.

One other thing to add - this place isn't cheap - for the sampler of fries, two burgers, a beer and two wines by the glass, we dropped 50 dollars.

 
At 5:30 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Diamond Dog,

"Burger is a huge piece of meat which I feel is all you can taste."

Funny that you said that because I kept asking my tablemates "Does this burger taste like meatloaf to you? Like there's something else added to it?"

I liked it, but to me, on that day, it didn't taste like any burger I've ever made myself or had a restaurant. That's not to say that it was bad. Just not the burger I had hoped it'd be.

MessyJessy,

Well, you kinda have to hold it with purpose and concentration. And when stuff inevitably pops out and escapes your grasp it then becomes a chopped steak you eat with a knife and fork! HAHA!

Marvin,

I'm glad mikester chimed in, because I couldn't find any hits on the kinds of beer they serve. I'm not much of a drinker, but I've heard of Father's Office and I'd definitely get a pint with my burger there. Though Father's Office seems to be the anti-Counter doesn't it? No substitutions or omissions allowed I heard.

Krizia,

Actually I was wondering whether people would call me out on Red Robin...a dreaded chain. But then pretty soon The Counter's going to be a statewide chain too.

For now it's unique, and good for the experience of trying something that's been gabbed about so much.

As far as girth, The Counter's is actually a smaller sandwich than a Royal Red Robin burger. But for value, and those (complimentary)endless baskets of fries, I'm going to say the Red Robin Royal.

I haven't tried any other burger at Red Robin except that one, but with bacon, a fried egg, cheese and beef...I'm not sure I need to ;-)

mikester,

Thanks for the beer info. I wouldn't have been able to know the difference between a Bud and Miller. Seriously!

Roasted green chiles sounds awesome. I debated trying the garlic aioli, but settled for the Peppercorn steak sauce...which was actually really GOOD!

 
At 9:04 PM, Blogger Chubbypanda said...

Dried cranberries and peanut sauce? It's so crazy, it just might work!

 
At 10:32 AM, Blogger KirkK said...

Hey Elmo - Can you actually get your mouth around one of those burgers????

 
At 7:55 AM, Anonymous eureka! said...

Went there Tuesday after reading your post and I really enjoyed the food. I loved the fact this burger tasted more like a homemade burger then any other place I've tried. Fresh (and really fatty) ground beef can't be beat for burger making. Too many restaurants use frozen patties and lean meat and the taste just isn't there IMO. The problem we had with The Counter was the service was awful. They weren't remotely prepared to handle the volume of customers—we brought 11 from the office. Even split up to three tables the green wait staff seemed overwhelmed handling us and we waited almost an hour after seating to actually get to eat.

 
At 7:00 PM, Blogger Deb said...

Catching up Elmo and glad I read yourpost before I headed over there. Sounds interesting and they've had their fair share of press...but your closing comment seals the deal for me. Let's go eat!

 
At 8:42 AM, Blogger Bill said...

I was there yesterday for lunch. They served me a raw burger the first time. I had it sent back but they finally got the medium rare right. Burger was thick and very juice. Apparently they know how to cook a good patty. Pricey, definitely a place I would swing by once a month or so.Oh, I had mine with an egg; the richness of the egg yolk on a juicy hot patty is so devilicous.

 
At 9:15 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

CP,

Actually, my friend did exactly this. Dried cranberry and peanut sauce...but he was wise enough to do it on a chicken sandwich.

Kirk,

I think if you were Mr. Fantastic you could.

Eureka,

They are in way over their little pretty heads. Let's hope that there's not much turnover because the longer they stick it out the more they'll get it.

Deb,

I'm going to give em a second chance. That one I had was still a pretty damn good meatloaf.

Bill,

I'll be there this weekend. And you betcha I'm gonna get an fried egg with it! Nothing elevates a fatty burger than more fat! The higher you launch yourself into space the better the view.

 
At 12:12 AM, Blogger Bill said...

FYI - the one in Santa Monica has a totally different setup and the pricing of each item is different from what my wife told me. She use to work in Santa Monica and would always take home a 1/2 eaten burger. Maybe the SM branch is a better branch?

 
At 10:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The pricing is the same. I have eaten at both now and I do not see any difference in the prices. I know that the menu is identical.

 
At 10:25 AM, Blogger Passionate Eater said...

Elmo, I wish I could have seen an action shot of you or your companion biting into those things! And you are definitely genetically related to me--I am glad to read that you ordered THREE deep-fried side items: (1) pickles, (2) fries, and (3) onions. Carry on Elmo, carry on!

 
At 10:21 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Bill and Anonymous,

Search me. Either way, since I'm notoriously lazy about going into L.A., I'll be frequenting this one. Especially since it's mere blocks from where I live.

In fact, I've gone twice more since this visit. And I'm happy to report, things are much improved. What a difference two weeks makes.

P.E.,

HA! And I have! I recently went back and polished off an order of sweet potato fries. Oh-so-good!

 
At 8:59 AM, Blogger MessyJessy said...

OMG! I can't believe it! The Counter is opening in NC across the street from where I work! In the words of Homer...Woo Hoo!!!!!

 
At 5:32 PM, Blogger melissa said...

congrats jessy! ;P it's funny to see you other places besides at home cook's spot. ;)

edwin, I just said on the oc blog review of christian's that you guys made me curious and so hubby and I went last wednesday. liked it a lot. we got half fries, half onion strings for the side, and the onion strings were awesome dipped in the bbq sauce. loved the flavor of the burgers as well (got mine with cheese, grilled onions, jalapenos and sauteed mushrooms).

I agree with everyone about the service though. they need to step it up!

thanks for the review!

 
At 9:23 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

MessyJessy,

Woohoo! That's what I also said a few months ago when I found out this one was going to open. I've been back three times now...each time better than the last.

Melissa,

You must try the sweet potato fries next. Simply the best!

Thankfully, the service is slowly getting better. Our waitress for the last visit was on the spot punctual. Drinks refilled without asking...empty plates whisked away. Even the burgers came out exactly as we expected them.

 
At 1:17 PM, Blogger The Home Cook said...

Dude! Seriously, the Royal Red Robin is THE BEST hamburger out there. It is, by far, my favorite burger in existence. And yes, I said that about a chain restaurant. :)

Shame about the huge burgers...I hate a place that makes their food hard to eat. How could you get your mouth around such a monstrosity? And they don't even taste that good? Eh.

 
At 12:31 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

The Home Cook,

High five on the Royal Robin Burger. And all that time, I thought I was the only one!

 
At 4:22 PM, Blogger unfrostedpoptart said...

I wasn't very impressed by the place. I went there with my wife and daughter, who had a coupon for a free burger.

First, they only offer 1/4 lb (too small) and 1/2 lb (too big). A 1/3 lb is just right.

Next, it took a really long time to get our food, and they didn't think of serving our drinks first.

Finally, my wife ordered the grilled cheese, opens it up, and there's a long hair sticking out of it!

The only reason I'll go back is that the manager gave me a coupon for a free burger to apologize for the hair.

I'll take Fuddrucker's or Red Robin over it. I really liked when they were serving Fuddrucker's burgers and fries in many Koo Koo Roos.

I guess one good thing is the bar...

 
At 5:35 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

UnfrostePopTart,

My question is, where'd you get the first coupon? It could've come in handy when I spent $30 for a meal of hamburgers for two.

 
At 10:19 AM, Blogger unfrostedpoptart said...

At 5:35 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

My question is, where'd you get the first coupon? It could've come in handy when I spent $30 for a meal of hamburgers for two.


My daughter lives in the apartments right next to the plaza and she got the coupon in the mail. I agree it's a bit pricey since the fries aren't included. At least the order of fries is big enough for two or three people.

 
At 2:30 PM, Anonymous jdub said...

I ordered my burger 'cut in half' and it was very easy to eat. It did not fall apart. I would recommend ordering it that if you have a hard time keeping your burger together...I have been to the restaurant several times since they have opened and have found it to be better and better each time I go. They seemed to be infilterated with corporate people and trainers when they opened which made everything seem a little chaotic but the service has been great the last few times I have been.
I dont seem to have a problem with the prices. Even at Red Robin, a meal and drink comes to $13.00 out the door and Islands is even more. I think the prices are pretty resonable for what you get. The fries could easily feed a table of 4.

 
At 2:53 PM, Anonymous steven said...

Hey Elmo,
Just read your review in OC Weekly and i'm was really surprised. The review comes off as really horrible for the restaurant. I thought you were a fan...Needless to say, I was there last night and had the most wonderful brownie a la mode to top off my BLT.

 
At 2:55 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

unfrostedPopTart,

Oh yes. The fries are plentiful and delicious. The sweet potato fries makes me want to bless the heavens.

jdub,

Completely agree with you. You should read my updated review in the OC Weekly. I had a completely different opinion on a second visit I made two weeks later.

Read it here.

The secret to eating a burger like a normal sandwich though is just to order the basic "Old School". No need for all that extraneous toppings. It's all about the meat.

 
At 3:09 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Steven,

Really? The OC Weekly review was far more positive than this blog post since I went back after they worked out all the kinks. And man, did I love that burger.

Here's the part of that review that is different than this post. I'm practically gushing with praise!


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.

 
At 3:44 PM, Anonymous steven said...

Hey Elmo,
I know the article ended up as positive, there was just so much more negative it set me back a bit. Your article was 9 paragraphs and I had to read through 7 of them until I found something good. I would like to believe that I am considered a regular at The Counter. Since it has opened, my nightly gym routine has concluded with a burger or sandwich and a beer. Not great for the six-pack I know. I guess I took offense that my new favorite hangout was not getting the greatest press. I was happy to have a happy ending to the article but I kept reading and reading hoping the good started coming faster then it did. Tonight I’m taking the night off, I figure I’ll leave a seat at The Counter for someone else to enjoy the deliciousness of the burgers. Sorry I got all hyped up..

 
At 4:41 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Hey Steven,

Dude...don't tell me you work out at the 24-Hour Fitness next door and then eat at The Counter afterwards.

Because if so...THAT'S FREAKIN' AWESOME! Seriously!

Anyway, that seat you are leaving empty tonight will most likely be filled by my fat ass!

By the way, my editors had to cut the story I submitted since it was too long.

My Mervyn's lady "open, open, open" line, among others were snipped. But it's just as well; I was going a little overboard on the pop culture references.

I'm glad they kept the Elastigirl/Mr. Fantastic thing though.

 
At 7:57 PM, Blogger Preston L. Bannister said...

After eating at The Counter in Irvine twice in the past month ...
I don't think we will be going back.

Ordered fries and a burger both times. For fries, think McDonald's fries when they (rarely) come perfectly done - not bad. For the burger ... I dunno. Ordered beef one time, and turkey the second. The meat came perfectly cooked, with faint and perfectly square grill marks ... yet somehow rather bland. A thick piece of meat with not a lot of flavor (how is that possible?). No real flavor from carmelization. Ordered one burger with roasted red peppers, that tasted like they were cooked in another state, and packed in a can (watery and bland). Did no care much for the turkey burger (but since I do not generally get turkey burgers - discount that somewhat). Pretty much the same story with the bread - apparently high quality, but somehow a bit bland and stale.

Kind'a like they ordered off the top of the Sysco menu, but went cheap when hiring for the kitchen. Maybe.

 

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