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.