Give me your hun­gry masses

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Alex Heard

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.

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