The Counter

Burgers
$$$$ ($14 and under)
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Editorial Review

On one hand, a new burger joint is a sure thing. On the other, it's pretty gutsy. This is, after all, a city where Ray's Hell-Burger and Good Stuff Eatery have rabid fans and Five Guys fanatics patrol the streets (and Internet message boards) extolling the virtue of the chain's basic burger, free toppings and fries.

With the Counter, an outlet of a California chain now open at Reston Town Center, arrives yet another concept. Upon entering, each diner is handed a clipboard with a checklist menu, similar to the kind you get when you go for sushi. First choose beef, turkey, veggie or chicken and one of three sizes. Then, there are 10 kinds of cheese -- herbed goat spread, anyone? -- plus 28 toppings, including dried cranberries and fried eggs, and 18 sauces. Some are free, some cost extra. In total, there are more than 312,000 possible combinations.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. Choose well and you get one hell of a burger. But it is possible to make a wrong turn.

Our beef burger ($8.50) was a juicy treat. (Medium-rare is standard at the Counter, but the kitchen cooks to order.) We kept it old-school, adding Swiss cheese, grilled onions, pickle, lettuce and tomato to our one-third-pound patty. (That's the cooked weight. The patty, made of Angus beef raised without hormones or antibiotics, starts out at about half a pound on the grill; the one-pounder starts out at 18 ounces!) The toasted bun stood up to mile-high toppings, though we could have left off the onions, which were tasteless.

We were more adventurous with the turkey and veggie burgers (both $8.50 with standard toppings). We added creamy housemade guacamole (fabulous) and roasted corn and black bean salsa (bland) to the veggie, a vegan-friendly blend of brown rice, squash, black beans and seven other vegetables. But not even carefully selected toppings could save the turkey burger, which was overcooked and had the texture of sawdust. A tall vanilla malt shake ($4.50) and a "fifty-fifty" plate of french fries and onion strings ($5.25) helped make it all right. The fries were crisp, golden and reminiscent of McDonald's -- and I mean that as a compliment.

The counter staff must know that their menu can be daunting; they happily provide advice. For the truly indecisive, the menu offers pre-set combinations.

-- Jane Black (Good to Go, Sept. 9, 2009)