Simple in concept, infinite in variety, the burger may be a perfect food.
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There’s something sublime about a hamburger. It’s a food everyone knows, and it’s not terribly expensive. You don’t have to dress up or go out of your way to eat one.
You certainly don’t need to take it too seriously, yet a burger is serious satisfaction—quick, hot and filling.
Simple in concept—beef patty, a bun—a burger is capable of almost infinite variety. The bun rises to accommodate a smear of secret or not-so-secret sauce, then lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions and cheese, always cheese. After that, you can go crazy with bacon, avocado, roasted peppers, sautéed mushrooms, kim chee, whatever you want, maybe even foie gras.
Still, it’s no trouble. Just pick it up and eat it, no knife, no fork, no plate even. It looks tidy, like a sandwich, yet it’s satisfyingly messy. The toppings escape, and a good burger is likely to drip down your wrist.
I love burgers. The fanfare that sounded when The Counter opened in Kahala Mall reminded me that Honolulu was replete with burger joints. Fire up the grill, I thought, that’s where I’m eating this month.
Some caveats: I did not go to restaurants with a hamburger on the menu, however good. I skipped Alan Wong’s Pineapple Room burger, the Formaggio Kobe beef burger and Murphy’s Guinness burger, although there are people who swear by these.
Nor did I eat fast-food burgers. I figured you either knew what a Big Mac was like—or would never eat one anyway.
I wanted places that focused on burgers, preferably serving them in plastic baskets on waxed paper the way God intended.
With a few duds, the news was pretty good.
Kahala Mall, 4211 Waialae Ave. // 739-5100 // Open daily 11 a.m., Monday through Thursday until 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m., Sunday until 9 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards // www.thecounterburger.com
The Counter generated excitement far beyond the opening of a new franchise restaurant. There was the star power of its owners—high-profile restaurateur DK Kodama (Sansei, Vino, Hiroshi Eurosion Tapas, DK’s) and even higher profile Lost star Daniel Dae Kim. (For more, see sidebar “Breakfast With DK and DDK.")
I should mention the owners also include Ed Robles and Pablo Buckingham, both of whom are hands-on at the restaurant—and it’s their performance that’s likely to matter in the long run.
The Counter is not quite a burger joint. It’s a casual restaurant with an extremely limited menu. It has sit-down service, plates and silverware, and a full bar, which made it a perfect place to sit down with an old friend, have a couple of cocktails and a bite to eat. A burger, since that’s pretty much the only choice.
What are the burgers like? Big. The smallest is a third of a pound, cooked weight, which means it started somewhere near 7 ounces of handmade Angus beef patty. You can eat the patty just by itself, it’s got the texture down, the right seasonings, wonderful beefiness. It’s a foundation on which you can build a reliable burger.
Breakfast with DK and DKK
As part of the media blitz for the opening of The Counter, I had a morning interview with restaurateur DK Kodama and Lost actor Daniel Dae Kim.
I’d resolved to eat only classic garnishes—cheese, lettuce, onion, pickle, tomato slice and mayo—but one look at The Counter’s menu and I capitulated.
The fun here is the profusion of choices, so many that The Counter’s national Web site asserts there are 312,120 possible different burger combos—though the way I do the math, there are actually millions by the time you run through all the permutations of toppings.
You can have cheese, all right, but why not Danish blue cheese? Lettuce, but why not mixed baby greens? Mayo, but why not roasted garlic aioli? Onions, but why not grilled onions? (Onions should be grilled. Cooking kills the enzymes that create propanethiol S-oxide, the nasty chemical that makes you cry.)
While you’re at it, why not add the excellent honey-cured bacon? I loaded up my burger, let the toppings perhaps dominate the flavors, but it sure was a pleasant ride.
The Counter was not perfect. My friend ordered well-done, got medium rare. I ordered medium-rare, got well-done. The kitchen mixed up the buns too, so he got the whole wheat. But it was still in the early days, so it will straighten out.
We went crazy ordering sides, which can run up to $4 each: sweet-potato fries, some crunchy, fried onion strings and heavily battered, deep-fried pickle chips. My friend took one look at the pickle chips and said, “For a moment I thought we were in North Carolina, where if it ain’t fried, it ain’t food.”
The Counter is slightly expensive for burgers—the cheapest is $8.95 and you can build up easily from there. But as dinner out, it’s a great deal—and, more important, a stellar burger.