Count on the Counter


POSTED: Sunday, March 01, 2009

No recent restaurant opening has garnered more interest than the Counter's, such that editors complained that four stories about the restaurant had appeared in the paper within a week. We're not exactly in the business of moving burgers, after all. Now make that five stories.





        Kahala Mall / 739-5100

Food: ;*;*;*;*
        Service: ;*;*;*
        Ambience: ;*;*;*
        Value: ;*;*;* 1/2


Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays
        Cost: About $25 to $30 for two without alcohol




Well, this is my regular kuleana. The rest were interloping. Nah, nah, just kidding. It's just that there are many curiosity factors attached to the restaurant. First, there's the track record of D.K. Kodama, who's stretching beyond his Sansei/d.k steakhouse role; the business angle of opening during an economic downturn; and the celeb factor surrounding “;Lost”; actor Daniel Dae Kim's involvement. Lastly, people want to know whether it's worth all the media attention. I think it is.

Larger, more elaborate restaurants have opened, but this is the restaurant where suddenly, everyone wanted to be my date. For a burger. Most people love burgers, period. So I think even if you were to subtract the celebrity quotient, this restaurant would be a hit.

I was entertained by the idea that Kim was involved in the partnership with Kodama, Ed Robles and Pablo Buckingham. From brief encounters with the actor, I knew he liked food, but I didn't know the extent of his interest. At first I thought it was normal newbie curiosity about the best places to eat in town, but in comparing favorites, I gleaned he knew his stuff and was not a snob on the high or low end. That was a good sign. I also didn't think he'd attach his name to a restaurant where he couldn't sit down himself and eat.

As it got closer to the Counter's opening, I started freaking out. I could sense the buzz and the beef eaters waiting to descend. As could be expected, going at peak hours meant hourlong waits for those who love a crowd. I avoided the traffic by going during the lull between lunch and dinner, at 3:30 p.m. No, it's not the typical diner's experience, but my job is hard enough without the additional aggravation of waiting longer than I have to. If your schedule allows, you can try doing the same by just having a small snack at lunch hour before a Counter encounter.

THE RESTAURANT reads young with its choice of music and skate-deck decor, but prices might dictate an older following. The kiddies won't often be able to afford an $8.95 burger with $1.50 fries and a $2.50 soda.

You can order one of the Counter's signature burgers, such as the Old School ($8.95) topped with Tillamook cheddar, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and red relish; Taco Turkey ($8.95) with jalapeno jack, scallions, dried cranberries and spicy sour cream; or the Counter burger ($10.95) topped with provolone, lettuce, tomato, fried onion strings, sauteed mushrooms and a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette.

But the fun is in building it your way. When I heard about the more than 300,000 possible combinations, I thought it was a stretch, but now I think it's entirely possible. The room could be packed, and it's unlikely that two custom burgers would be alike.

You're given a clipboard with a sheet of paper that looks like a multiple-choice test. It's daunting to see all the choices available, but if you take it step by step, you'll make it through. If it were a test, my friends and I would fail because we were indecisive and kept comparing notes. Even after we were done and passed our papers to the front of the class, we couldn't resist peeking at others' choices, and changing our work when someone chose an ingredient we might like. You can also double up on sauces (50 cents extra per selection), cheese ($1 extra) and toppings (50 cents extra).

You don't even have to have a beef burger. You can substitute turkey, a veggie patty or a tender filet of grilled chicken. But I came for the beef, 100 percent angus raised on a vegetarian diet without hormones or antibiotics. This is the new one to beat, and all past burger comparisons will have to be revised to place the Counter at the top. It's juicy, flavorful and freshly made without obvious fillers. It's about time restaurateurs took the burger seriously, also cooking it to your desire, whether you want it well done, a rosy pink-centered medium or dripping rare.

I topped my burger with herb goat cheese spread, dried cranberries, roasted chilies, mixed baby greens, grilled onions and guacamole. Next time, I'd probably go for the straight avocado instead. You'd simply get more avocado that way, without all the onions in the guacamole.

Much has been said about Kim's affection for a burger topped with kim chee. I like kim chee and I like beef burgers, but not together, so you can ask for the kim chee on the side for $1 as a premium ingredient.

Other sides include fried pickle chips ($4.95), single orders of fries ($1.50) and sweet potato fries ($2.25), or for the curious and/or hungry, double up with various “;Fifty-Fifty”; combinations of fries and onion strings ($5.50 to $6.50). I liked them all and they're accompanied by different sauces. If you don't care for one sauce, don't give up on it as a possible burger topper. For instance, apricot sauce was one-dimensional with the fries but much more nuanced in combination with the chicken fillet. It's all about mixing and matching, while someone else does the job of bringing your creation to life. Other sauce choices for your burger include a creamy roasted garlic aioli, country buttermilk ranch, spicy horseradish mayo, southwest Caesar, basic teriyaki, Dijon balsamic dressing and more.

A one-third-pound burger starts at $8.95, with the two-thirds-pounder coming in at $10.95, and $13.95 for a full pound. No-carb dieters can cast out the bun and have their burger in a bowl ($10.95/$13.50/$15.50) on a bed of lettuce or mixed baby greens.

I'd probably try the veggie burger next time. The thought of it made me think of a dry, flavorless Garden burger, but I'm buoyed by the thought it may be similar to the grilled vegetable selection in the Hobo Pack ($5.50), a dice of carrots, zucchini, black beans and corn mushed together with herbs to create a scoop-and-eat delight. There's chili, too, and I think the regular beef version ($5.50) fares better than the salty-sweet turkey chili ($6.50).

As for dessert, I don't know what to tell you. Chances are, you'll be too full at that point. I only know the apple crumble wasn't very crumbly.

As for Kim, it looks like he has a future in restaurants if he were to be killed off on “;Lost.”; But wait, his character was killed off. But then he turned out to be alive. But he came back in the past, so he might still be dead in the present…


Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin.