The Counter and build-your-own regret

The Counter and build-your-own regret

I wrote in an earlier column that one of the things I was looking forward to as a newbie Chicagoan is trying out the many restaurants the city is known for.

After sticking with a place we've gone to a few times before in Cozy Noodles & Rice our first time out since moving in, my wife and I tried someplace new in The Counter, 666 W. Diversey, our next time.

The Counter is a chain restaurant with more than 30 locations (though the Chicago one is the sole location in the Midwest) and must be cool because it says on the website that it was "anti-established" in 2003. This seems silly because I can't even imagine anyone – even the characters in "SLC Punk" – saying he or she was anti-born in so-and-so year, but so be it. It is an anti-establishment.

It is an anti-establishment, however, that my wife had heard good things about. And since this would be one of the few burgers I allow myself to enjoy during the course of the year, it had better be.

Its main concept is build-your-own burger.

I've been to a few places where it is encouraged to customize your burger, such as Tom and Eddie's or Urban Grille in suburban Geneva, but I'm always up for a new challenge.

And, yes, building your own burger is a challenge. At least it is for me. I can be indecisive when it comes to ordering off of a menu. Everything usually looks good, and in a perfect world I'd tell the waiter a few things I don't like and then have the kitchen surprise me with my dish. Picking between 20 or so items is tough enough. But building your own burgers brings its own unique challenge, especially when presented with many choices. According to The Counter's website, there are more than 312,000 combinations for its burgers. In other words, I could have a burger every day for 800 years and still not have tried every combination. (Not a recipe for living past 800, by the way.)

Let's go ahead and run through the options:

Step 1: Choose a burger.

Your options are beef, chicken, turkey or veggie. OK. Easy enough.

Step 2: Choose a cheese

Now, we start to have some fun. The option are Danish Blue, feta, Gruyére, herb goat cheese spread, horseradish cheddar, imported Swiss, sharp Provolone, soft ripened Brie, Tillamook cheddar and yellow American. Whew.

But then it gets worse. Far worse.

Step 3: Choose up to four toppings

For time sake, I won't list them all, but some of the possibilities include dried cranberries, hard-boiled eggs, roasted red peppers, cucumbers and roasted corn and black bean salsa. This is before we get into the premium topping that cost $1 each such as applewood-smoked bacon, chili, guacamole, Black Forest ham and fried eggs. (Yes, frying the egg instead of hard boiling it costs a dollar. Don't ask me why.)

And as soon as I think I'm out of the woods, having finally decided on four toppings, here comes the sauces.

Step 4: Choose a sauce

There are 20 sauces. 20?!? For a hamburger? I'm not eating wings here. And we certainly have some interesting choices such as apricot sauce (made with real apricots, I presume), peanut sauce (made with real peanuts, I presume), and Russian dressing (made with real Russians, in my nightmares). Oh, and hot wing sauce, of course.

Now, I've got to be done with choosing.

Nope.

Step 5: Choose a bun

Luckily, there are fewer choice here. Hamburger bun, multigrain bun (for those who want to make their burger with bacon, ham and fried egg healthier), English muffin and onion bun.

My head hurt at the end of it as I eventually settled on beef, Tillamook cheddar, grilled onions, lettuce blend, roasted red peppers, tomatoes, tzatziki (why not?) and a hamburger bun.

The burger, though, was delicious. The tzatziki was put on the side (as are all their sauces) so I could try the concoction without worrying about ruining the burger. It worked surprisingly well. The burger was cooked perfectly and the toppings were top-notch. I wanted to lick my plate clean at the end of it. (I didn't. That would have been really gross. And possibly grounds for divorce.)

But as good as the burger was, I'm now wondering about all of the toppings and sauces I didn't choose. I can't go back and try a new one every day. As good as it was, that would wreak havoc on my health. So, here I am stuck with build-your-own regret.

Build-your-own regret is more common than you might think, especially since the build-your-own phenomenon is not limited to hamburgers. Mongolian barbecues have been presenting multiple options since Genghis Khan couldn't decide what country he wanted to invade and ended up just pillaging all of them. You can build bears. You can build lives via games like "The Sims." You could build your own football or baseball team through fantasy sports. The options are limitless. And therein lies the problem. The options for not getting it quite right also are limitless.

My problem with build-your-own stuff is rooted in Platonic idealism. The Greek philosopher Plato posited that all things have a perfect form. You might remember it from class when you read about the Allegory of the Cave. I always worry that there is a perfect burger or a perfect stir-fry combination somewhere in the back of that cave that I just can't hit upon. I had the same issue with Choose Your Own Adventure books as a youth. While the books give you multiple endings, I always believed that one of the endings was the real one and it frustrated me that I didn't know. Likewise, little ticks me off more than directors who provide an alternate ending, thus confusing me as to what is the real ending to the fictional story.

Yet, with all that being said, I chose to build my own burger rather that to choose one of The Counter's suggestions. One of my favorite styles of restaurants are Mongolian barbecues. Maybe it's the pursuit of perfection that keeps me going back. It's doubtful I'll ever hit up a burger's perfect form, but there's nothing wrong with trying.

At least I didn't have to worry about picking the wrong kind of fries at The Counter. The kind waiter allowed us to mix the Parmesan fries and the sweet-potato fries since we were first-time customers. Bless him.

Though, perhaps we should have gone with the regular fries.

Filed under: Columns, Food

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