Counter of­fers

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Lau­rel Glad­den

Be­fore my first meal for this re­view, I asked some friends what they thought of Counter Cul­ture. Most re­mem­bered it fondly for laugh-filled re­unions with friends, fruit­ful meet­ings with new busi­ness as­so­ci­ates, or mel­low af­ter­noons spent read­ing, writ­ing, or surf­ing the Web. What sur­prised me was that al­most no one could re­call any­thing spe­cific they had eaten.

Counter Cul­ture is cer­tainly a pop­u­lar lo­cal haunt; very rarely is the park­ing lot or din­ing room empty. But the café — with its groovy-grungy in­dus­trial-hip­ster chic, lo­cal art, and free wireless In­ter­net ser­vice — strikes me as a place you go to see and be seen. Food al­most seems be­side the point.

The park­ing lot can be a nav­i­ga­tional night­mare, es­pe­cially around noon; you’ll rarely have trou­ble find­ing a seat, though. Check your wal­let or swing by an ATM on the way: Counter Cul­ture does not ac­cept credit or debit cards. Break­fast, lunch, and din­ner menus cover black­boards along the wall. Or­der at the counter; take your num­ber to a ta­ble in the din­ing room or on a pa­tio; and grab uten­sils, nap­kins, wa­ter, salt and pep­per, and any other nec­es­sary condi­ments from a shelf or cart.

Meal­times are flex­i­ble: you can or­der lunch in the evening most nights and break­fast all day on the week­ends. Lunch typ­i­cally in­cludes de­li­cious daily soups and an ar­ray of sand­wiches and sal­ads, both meaty and not (I couldn’t help but won­der, though, why the “Fall Salad” is still be­ing of­fered in the spring). At din­ner, the menu is more up­scale, fea­tur­ing sev­eral seafood dishes, grilled chicken, and hanger steak. If you or­der wine, be pre­pared to drink it from an un­pre­ten­tious juice glass.

Break­fasts were the best meals I ate at Counter Cul­ture. The egg sand­wich with ba­con and cheese is a fool­proof clas­sic. The huevos rancheros nearly over­flowed the plate, and both red and green chile sauces packed plenty of fla­vor and heat. I’m a fan of the elu­sive over-medium egg, which seems be­yond the ken of so many cooks. The folks in this kitchen do huevos right, though; they nailed over-medium ev­ery time.

Counter Cul­ture’s mam­moth cin­na­mon rolls are the stuff of lo­cal leg­end. When I was a stu­dent in the

pâtissier pro­gram at Santa Fe Com­mu­nity Col­lege, our in­struc­tor took us on a “field trip” to Counter Cul­ture, be­cause she, a pro­fes­sional pas­try chef, con­sid­ered them the zenith of warm, doughy, su­gar-and-spice good­ness. They alone are worth a trip — though note that you can only get them on Wed­nes­days and week­ends. Don’t try to eat one by your­self.

The pre­sen­ta­tion of many dishes verged on dis­tract­ingly showy. A mound of haystack fries might make you gasp with joy, but the serv­ing is more than two peo­ple can (or maybe should) eat. The per­fectly cooked burger — topped with su­per-sa­vory grilled onions — was lost amid brick-sized slabs of spongy, too-sweet fo­cac­cia, which I quickly tossed aside.

I never thought I’d say I felt sorry for a mush­room, but I did for the porta­bel­las; they were sim­i­larly adrift amid triple the bread they re­quired, and it dulled their smoky fla­vor and de­li­cious juices. A moun­tain­ous salad couch­ing an odd disk of ahi tuna turned out to be an airy trompe l’oeil of frisée and flash-fried noo­dles. The mango chut­ney was a dis­ap­point­ingly mushy, off-tast­ing mess.

Sprouts, wilt­ing greens, rib­bons of carrot, and cu­cum­ber ob­scured the spring rolls. The “hot and sweet” sauce was heavy, dark, and much too po­tent for such a light dish. Maybe the sauce was so force­ful be­cause the rolls them­selves — pri­mar­ily bland rice noo­dles, the oc­ca­sional let­tuce leaf, and a sprin­kling of egg and sei­tan — lacked any in­her­ent fla­vor.

The Cobb salad lived up to its flam­boy­ant first im­pres­sion, tak­ing Mr. Cobb’s cre­ation to a wel­come new level. Fresh greens serve as a foun­da­tion for turkey, tangy cheeses, ba­con, egg, corn ker­nels, carrot, olives, red pep­pers, fried onion strips, and Chi­mayó-chile-spiced wal­nuts. This is the sort of mul­ti­col­ored, bal­anced meal your mother might have lec­tured you about.

No doubt about it, Counter Cul­ture is a comfortable, col­or­ful place to grab a meal while you hang out, peo­ple-watch, or gab with friends. I’d gladly eat here if a com­pan­ion sug­gested it or if I found my­self in the neigh­bor­hood. But I wouldn’t go out of my way.

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