Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Doing It Yourself

I love a good burger. I could get very philsophical about how the burger represents the perfect blank canvas upon which the eater designs an edible artistic masterpiece, with toppings, sauces and other accoutrements serving as elements of said masterpiece. I could talk about how the burger is a window into the soul of the eater, and that choice of restaurant, of topping, even of meat and bun speak volumes about the individual who is eating it. I could do these things, but I'm much too simple for that. I just love burgers. I know I've stated that virtually every food that I enjoy is my favorite, but the truth is that the hamburger may be the perfect food. They're as complex or as simple as one likes, they're easy to make and relatively easy to eat, all four food groups are frequently represented, and if done right, they're delicious.

Though I've eaten burgers at a variety of restaurants over the course of my thirty-two years, of late I am particularly enamored with the concept of the "build your own burger" restaurant. Perhaps it speaks to my inherent creativity, as the freedom to assemble - no, create! - a burger with the toppings of my choice is right up my alley. Or perhaps it speaks to my inherent gluttony, as the ability to pile on as many pickles, onions, spreads and what-have-you as I want, without being charged extra, is pretty cool as well.

As a child, I used to eat at the Flakey Jake's in Federal Way, Washington whenever I would go there to visit family. Flakey Jake's was the first restaurant to indulge my creativity/gluttony by giving me access to a toppings bar. I loved having the freedom to load my burger with virtually any topping or condiment my young mind could conceive. Beyond the usual produce and sauces, Flakey Jake's toppings bar had such exciting things as chili, nacho cheese and bacon bits, none of which I was used to getting on my plain old McDonalds hamburger, or for that matter the hamburgers my mom made. There was no Flakey Jake's in the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up, and I remember being devastated when, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, I learned that the Federal Way location had closed down. The chain filed bankruptcy in 1992, and not long ago I learned that the Sacramento area (about two hours from where I grew up) had a Flakey Jake's location until 1991. I'm sure I could have cajoled my parents into making the drive.

Unlike Flakey Jake's, Fuddruckers still exists. Probably the best known build-it-yourself burger chain in America, Fuddruckers operates on the same general principle as Flakey Jake's: Diners order a burger plain or with specialty toppings such as bacon, cheese or grilled mushrooms, and then dress it themselves at the restaurant's toppings bar. I have long enjoyed Fuddruckers for this reason, although as a man who loves french fries almost as much as the burgers they accompany, I can imagine few pleasures greater than dipping Fuddruckers' wedge-style fries in an endless reservoir of ketchup, barbecue sauce and nacho cheese.

Roseville, where I currently live, has two new build-it-yourself burger restaurants, though they are quite different from one another. The first is Burger Hut, part of a small chain that originated in Chico, California in 1978.

Including the Roseville franchise, there are five locations, with three in Chico alone. Burger Hut operates much like Flakey Jake's and Fuddruckers, with an extensive menu that includes burgers, hot dogs, breaded and grilled chicken, and fish and chips. Particularly noteworthy is the "Bull Dog", a quarter-pound hamburger and a quarter-pound hot dog served on the same bun. Burgers and dogs, living together! Mass hysteria!

Their toppings bar - sorry, "Fresh Fixin's [sic] Bar" - features the standard assortment of condiments including lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, relish, and a variety of sauces and spreads. Unfortunately, they do not have the nacho cheese sauce I love getting at Fuddruckers. Perhaps there is a suggestion box at the restaurant; I will have to take a look the next time I'm there.

Typically I order the quarter-pound burger with bacon and either crumbled blue cheese, or else melted American or cheddar. (Burger Hut's specialty toppings, or add-ons, also include guacamole, green chiles, grilled mushrooms and chili, as well as a variety of cheeses.) I always find it amusing that, rather than laying a couple slices of bacon across my burger, they form it into a circular patty:

My burger, dressed:

It's hard to choose between fries and onion rings, so I usually get half orders of both, especially if I'm not dining alone.

Unlike Burger Hut, The Counter is a larger and more upscale chain, boasting locations in multiple states, as well as Ireland and Australia. Like the other restaurants mentioned here, The Counter specializes in letting patrons customize their burger; however, there is no toppings bar. Patrons select their burger patty from a list including beef, turkey, veggie and grilled chicken burgers (no breaded chicken option is available), and then select the size, the type of bun, cheese, toppings, and a spread. The burger is prepared and topped behind-the-scenes, and brought out just as it would be brought out at Red Robin, Chili's, or any other casual dining chain restaurant.

During our initial visit to The Counter last Saturday, I was pleased to find the burgers miles above the typical burger served by a casual dining chain restaurant. For starters, the beef looked and tasted like beef. Though the extensive list of toppings seemed a bit overwhelming at first, they were fresh and delicious, my choices the perfect complement to my burger. (FYI, I chose roasted red peppers, green chiles, grilled onions and pickle slices, as well as Danish blue cheese, peppercorn steak sauce, and a wheat bun.)

Without question, The Counter is the most expensive of the four restaurants discussed here. Katie and I went there with out of town family, and four burgers (three one-third pound and one two-third pound), three shakes, one soda and a combo order of fries, onion strings and sweet potato fries came to roughly $60. For four people this breaks down to approximately $15 per person, which isn't exorbitant, though it's more than I'd like to spend on a hamburger, even an exceptional one. The food is very good, and there's no doubt that someone who really enjoys a good burger will consider their money well spent here. We will definitely eat there again, but I'd be lying if I said that we'll be doing so on a regular basis.

Sorry, Counter people. It's certainly nothing personal.


  1. Like you, we recently made our first trip to The Counter. I was seriously overwhelmed with the list of available toppings; so overwhelmed, in fact, I asked Manuel if he wanted to bail. He didn't (dressing his burger is always easy) so I stuck with it and was very pleased in the end (chicken on a wheat bun with jalapeno jack cheese, peanut sauce, roasted red peppers and grilled onions. A lot of the toppings I normally go for (avocado, bacon) were extra money, so I didn't go there. I thought the fries were exceptional. Manuel, who normally drowns his fries in ketchup, didn't use a drop! Manuel's strawberry shake was phenomenal, fresh strawberries are always WAY better than anything else. My peanut butter shake was good, complete with chunks of peanut butter. I'd like to go again, to see how a new creation will taste, but not regularly as it is indeed pricey...

  2. You know, I too thought the Counter was too expensive, but after reading Jessica's recollection of our trip there, I sit here salivating over just how damn good it was. I guess that speaks volumes to how good it was. First, I plan on trying Burger Hut.

  3. My sentiments exactly. Everything we had that day was excellent, and we'll probably go back there the next time we have out-of-town guests. (I'm hoping, anyway.) Definitely give Burger Hut a try. After my review I hope it lives up to the hype!

    Jess - yeah, The Counter gives you a ton of choices. There were a bunch of options I wanted to go with but didn't, yet I so enjoyed what I ordered that I'd be surprised if I branched out and got something different next time. The chicken you got MUST have been great, and I came close to ordering my burger with peanut sauce. (Katie and I are convinced that anything served with peanut sauce will taste good because of it.)