If you’re on a low carb / high fat diet in America today, it’s not unusual to feel like a second-class citizen. Our world is filled with wonderful smelling, delicious looking, high carb foods, but they are not for us. Carb-rich foods permeate the media and dominate advertising. Almost any celebration in our culture incorporates carbs. From informal workplace birthday gatherings to elaborate wedding receptions, carbs are everywhere, and sometimes when we don’t partake our hosts, or even our families and friends, take offense that we refuse to cheat on our diets.
Nowhere does the low carb dieter feel more alienated than at restaurants. Simply ordering a low carb meal becomes a negotiation (“May I have veggies instead of rice or potatoes?”); our requests seem odd (“I’ll have a cheeseburger with no bun”); or we have to learn a secret, nonsensical menu language (“Protein style?”). And all too often I’ve had to be “that guy” who sends food back to the kitchen (“I said mustard, not honey mustard!”).
So imagine my delight when my daughter’s boyfriend introduced our family to The Counter, a small chain of burger restaurants where we didn’t feel like strangers in our own land.
The menu at The Counter is extensive, and its innovative form allows the customer to choose from an ample variety of patties, toppings, cheeses and sauces, to build a burger step by step. As you’re seated you’re handed a menu on a clipboard. If it’s your first visit you’ll get a brief lesson on how to order. With the provided pencils you check boxes indicating various options starting with the patty, where you can pick beef, chicken breast, turkey burger, veggie burger or “Market Selection” (more about that later). You can choose a 1/3, 1/2 or 1 pound patty. Since cooking a 1 pound patty requires quite a wait, they offer three 1/3 pound patties instead.
The first thing I noticed on the menu - right at the top - was the burger bowl. If you select the “Burger Bowl” you choose from a bed of baby spinach, salad or organic mixed greens. The burger bowl option is $1 extra.
If you want cheese on your burger you have a choice of a dozen different varieties, all low carb.
Next you can choose up to four toppings from a list of 23 options, most of them low carb. These include traditional toppings like lettuce and tomatoes, but also some more unusual choices, like roasted green chiles or sliced cucumbers. If you want more than four toppings extras are $.50 each.
The Counter restaurant also offers a selection of Premium toppings for $1 each. Here you will find bacon, avocado, guacamole and sautéed mushrooms. Out of the nine premium toppings, six are low carb. I suggest asking for the nutritional information before making your picks as there are a few surprises.
Next you pick a sauce, again from a variety, with additional sauces also $.50 each. Of the 23 sauces available, twelve have 4g carbs or less and eight have 2g or less, so choose carefully. (Watch out for the Horseradish Mayo!)
Once you’ve checked the appropriate boxes on the menu form, you’ll be asked how you want your burger cooked. To avoid surprises they’ll make sure you know that “rare” means cool in the center.
Several menu categories include a “Market Selection.” These change from week to week and location to location. For example, when we visited, bison burgers were an option.
In addition to the “build your own” portion of the menu there is a more traditional selection of meals, mostly high carb, and a kid’s menu.
In our party we had a very strict low carb high, fat dieter (yours truly), two carb-restricted dieters, and a typical carb-eater. My daughter’s boyfriend ordered his favorite combo, with a bun. My daughter, who restricts carb intake, ordered the market selection for every choice, while my wife ordered the Mediterranean burger in a bowl, the set-menu option with the fewest carbs (15 grams).
As for me, I built a magnificent meal in a bowl: Baby green spinach (2g, net carbs), with a 1 pound patty (0g); imported Swiss cheese (1g); roasted green chiles (1g), scallions (1g), tomatoes (1g) and roasted red peppers (1g) for toppings. I picked garlic Aioli (1g) for the sauce, and, of course, bacon as a premium topping (0g). Total: 8 grams of net carbs. That’s a lot of food at one sitting, even for me. I was fully expecting to take some home, but it turned out I was hungrier than I thought!
With all their burger options The Counter calculates 312,120 possible combinations. (When I do the calculations I come up with a much higher number, even when limited to low carb selections)
The only low carb / high fat fail was the appetizers. We ordered a “50/50″ (traditional french fries and sweet potato fries) for the carbivores, and grilled veggies for the strict low carbers. Unfortunately, the grilled veggies were mostly carby – carrots and corn.
The Counter started in 2003 in Santa Monica, California, and now has 36 locations in nine states and three countries. I’ve been to three, and have found a consistently high level of service and high quality food at each one.
The owner of the chain wasn’t available for an interview, and the PR rep didn’t provide helpful answers to the questions I sent, so I can’t say if the menu was designed with low carb dieters in mind. But, whether by accident or design, this was the best restaurant for low carb dining I’ve been to since I started on the Atkins diet nearly two years ago. The Counter is not a low carb restaurant, but it is a restaurant where low carb dieters can have a delicious, healthy, low carb / high fat meal. Maybe just as important, we can finally find a seat at a table where we’re welcome and where we belong.