Give me your hungry masses
Parents I know say that Counter Culture Café is a great option for them, and you can see why when you walk through the door: this place can handle a little rowdiness. The restaurant’s airy, light-industrial design has the feel of a big classroom, with bright paintings, sturdy tables, and durable metal chairs. There’s even a toy cabinet, featuring neatly arranged dinosaurs and zoo animals that a kid can grab and carry off in a bucket. On mild-weather days, you can eat outside on a shady patio.
Counter Culture’s walls are covered with six big chalk-pen menus that offer roughly 50 different options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — everything from gravlax and a threeegg omelet to sandwiches, lasagna, and carne asada. There are also plenty of daily specials, hot and cold drinks, and bakery items in a counter cabinet next to where you place orders. Portions are big here, and the overall quality of the food is high. But it’s also inconsistent, which in my experience is common for funky old Berkeley-style restaurants like this, where a large amount food gets cooked and plated every day.
During a recent dinner visit, I ordered one of the specials: chicken enchiladas with spinach, cheese, black beans, and green and red chile. It was nothing fancy, but it was one of the best things I’ve eaten in a while. The tortillas were stacked, not rolled, and all the ingredients were good, especially the chicken. Enchilada fillings in Santa Fe are sometimes an unappealing hash, but these contained generous chunks of white meat that had been roasted nicely before being diced and slathered with the red chile.
My two companions both ordered a pumpkin soup that they raved about, and for good reason: it was rich and creamy, and you could taste the autumn apple that had been puréed into it. Their other two orders, a fall salad and a plate of spring rolls, fell flat, though. The ingredients in the salad sounded great when we read them off the wall — mixed greens, roasted beets, blue cheese, Chimayó-chile-coated walnuts, and balsamic vinaigrette — but the proportions were off: too much lettuce, not enough beets and cheese.
The spring rolls had a similar problem. They consisted of rice-paper wrappers that contained scrambled egg, seitan (rubbery gluten chunks, also known as “vegetarian wheat meat”), and rice vermicelli. The dominant element was the vermicelli, so the rolls were dry and nearly flavorless. A Thai dipping sauce on the side helped juice things up, but chewing through the rolls was still a bit of a chore.
On another visit, for breakfast, I ordered a latte and my dining companion had a Vietnamese coffee. The latte was good, but the curious thing was that the Vietnamese coffee looked and tasted exactly the same. The main ingredients in this drink are strong coffee from Vietnam and sweetened condensed milk — so it should be both richer and sweeter than a typical latte. My friend ordered lemon-ricotta pan- cakes and was underwhelmed — she couldn’t detect any ricotta, and the pancakes soaked up all the maple syrup, which made them too soggy and heavy. I had a breakfast quesadilla and liked it just fine. Between two toasted flour tortillas was a tasty mix of scrambled egg, cheese, and bacon, and it came with a bowl of fresh pico de gallo. But the hash browns on the side were mediocre — dry chunks of potato dusted with too much paprika.
I went back solo for a third visit to try the signature item in the bakery cabinet: the cinnamon roll. These rolls are large — mine was 8 inches long and 5 inches wide — and I assumed it was going to be bready. Wrong. It was good, although a bit overbaked. Ask them to heat yours up to make the cinnamon, butter, and icing gooey again.
During that last visit, I noticed that the daily lunch and dinner specials get posted early, which made me wonder if the same information is available online. It isn’t. Counter Culture doesn’t have a website, and its Facebook page has been moribund for a long time. It would be helpful if the owner made the list of specials accessible remotely. I know I’d go back the next time those enchiladas turn up.