If you've ever been to Louis' Lunch in New Haven, which consensus credits for inventing the hamburger in 1900 for a customer who needed his ground steak to go, you'll notice a sign with a ketchup squirt bottle with a big red diagonal slash-the universal prohibition symbol. Don't even think of requesting ketchup. Moreover, the patties come out of the original 1898 vertical flame grills to be put on toast. Why? True to its history, Louis' believes the meat should speak for itself. As to the lack of buns, their view is that buns hadn't been invented in 1900.
Flash forward to 1975. Two competing commercial jingles become part of America's hamburger consciousness, espousing two diametrically opposed burger philosophies: McDonald's somewhat fascist "two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun," versus Burger King's democratic, "hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don't upset us, all we ask is that you let us serve it your way."
The Counter (tagline: Custom Built Burgers) is the 21st century's post-Cold War, post Big Mac Whopper re-invention of the burger joint. They've taken the concept of Burger King's "Have it your way" and elevated it to a religion. Or at least to a culture (make that "Counter-culture"). The new Times Square location opening today on 41st and Broadway is the first beachhead on the East Coast of what will surely be an invasion by the burgeoning California franchise. Louis Lassen may be rolling over in his grave, but The Counter may just be the next big thing in burgers.
I love regional burgers: burgers with various local cheeses, Wisconsin burgers with butter, New Mexico burgers with green chiles, Missouri burgers with peanut butter. New York City has recently begun experimenting with these regional burger styles at various places around town. But The Counter has another approach: Do It Yourself. With over 312,000 possible combinations, the only limitations are your imagination.
What to order? While reviewing the check-the-box menu with a tiny official Counter pencil, I munched on fried dill pickle chips dipped in apricot sauce, a Southern specialty we don't often see in the Northeast. I guzzled a draft root beer and passed on the full liquor, beer and wine selection for a thick whipped cream topped chocolate malt, my preferred hamburger beverage.
But what to pick for my burger? Not only do you get to select meat (beef, chicken, turkey or veggie), but also size (1/3-pound, 2/3-pound or a whole pound!) and bun (white, wheat, onion, ciabatta). There are 11 cheeses, 20 toppings, 9 premium toppings, and 20 sauces. Plus daily market specials in each category! This could take a while. I finally decided and five minutes later my Frankenburger came to life.
The 1/3lb beef burger was a nice pink — medium rare — topped with melted Gruyère, roasted green chiles, and runny fried egg, with a side of sweet BBQ sauce, as requested. The fusion of tangy Gruyère and yolk-covered chiles with BBQ sauce complimented the meat. It was unlike any burger I've eaten. The bun? Out of respect to Louis' Lunch, I chose the daily bun special: Texas Toast.