This is an average sandwich:

It is called a Gruyère Ham Stack. Classified as a hot sandwich, in this case, it is merely warm. The "stack" portion of its moniker might better refer to its overabundance of arugula than the ham, which tastes more of salt than pork. The Gruyère is barely noticeable, unless you consider its waxy texture. Not so with the onions, which compete with a bright white sauce said to be housemade mustard, but which actually tastes more like horseradish. And the sandwich's "artisan" ciabatta bread is nothing more than further proof of how meaningless the word artisan has become.

It is not a sandwich you will remember. It is not a sandwich you will tell your friends about. In fact, it could easily be a sandwich from a fast-casual American chain. But this sandwich, and its equally average breakfast and lunch brethren, are from Ncounter, a locally owned restaurant on Tempe's Mill Avenue. And if there's one thing this college town main drag doesn't need any more of, it's mediocrity.

Among fairly standard breakfast and lunch items, Ncounter's French toast is one of the better choices.
Jackie Mercandetti
Among fairly standard breakfast and lunch items, Ncounter's French toast is one of the better choices.

Location Info

Map

Ncounter

310 S. Mill Ave., #A101
Tempe, AZ 85281

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Tempe

Details

Ncounter
310 South Mill Avenue, Tempe
480-968-9288
www.ncounter.com
Hours: 7 a.m. to 3:05 p.m. daily

French toast: $6.50
Hot Juan omelet: $8
The Cobb sandwich: $8.50
Original Chop salad: $8.50

Don't get me wrong. I don't want Ncounter to fail. I don't want any locally owned business to fail. Especially on Mill Avenue, where, thanks to years of notoriously high rents, deep-pocket chains like Chili's, P.F. Chang's, and Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches seem to be the only ones able to afford the asking price. Those who can't either have been pushed out or have gone elsewhere, making Mill's selection of street eats seem more apropos to safe and sensible pant suit suburbia than walking distance from thousands of students attending one of the nation's largest universities.

The opportunity at Ncounter, which was opened in July 2011 by Thom and Kathy Coker (who also own the country-inspired breakfast and lunch spot T.C. Eggington's in Mesa), is not to fit in with the Mill Avenue chain gang of mainstream eats (and at this point, the restaurant could easily be mistaken for one of them) but to distinguish itself as something better — and, better yet, different.

Let's start with Ncounter's menu, where, unfortunately, there's little in the way of surprises. The Cokers, along with chef Dean Delgado, ensure breakfast and lunch items stay fairly standard, as do the ingredients. There's certainly nothing wrong with simple as long as the sourcing is there — but that's not the case at Ncounter. If the Cokers were to re-think how to best improve their current offerings, higher quality and more flavorful ingredients would be the place to begin.

To its credit, the restaurant does get its portion sizes right. From mid-size omelets to single handfuls of chips and even baked goods, nothing comes in a size begging for a to-go box or a nap afterward.

Breakfast diners should be wary of misleading item names. An omelet called the Hot Juan is neither hot nor even the least bit spicy. Its chorizo (as absent in flavor as it is in a sauté item with eggs) and barely-there jalapeños are aided little by a topping of listless salsa and melted cheddar cheese. The Farmer's Market Eggs Benedict, with its weak and near-translucent Hollandaise sauce, features tomatoes and spinach that fall short of the just-picked tastes the name implies. Only the egg sandwich Killer appears to be justified in its moniker. The flavors of bacon, gorgonzola, and fried eggs are, in fact, effectively snuffed thanks to thick, tasteless "artisan" ciabatta bread that should be avoided entirely.

Hiding under a white mountain range of whipped cream, however, is perhaps Ncounter's best breakfast dish: the French toast. Topped with syrupy sweet strawberries, two thick slices of golden and griddled cinnamon bread provide a level of unexpected flavor.

For lunch, there are hot and cold sandwiches and salads. Most are uninspired, but lunch gets a slight edge because of a decent herbed focaccia on some of the sandwiches. All the sandwiches arrive with chips or a "spring mix salad" that is more or less two grape tomatoes lost in a handful of greens and a splash of balsamic.

The hot cheddar dip will arrive smaller than you would have expected and perhaps a bit greasier, too, thanks to grilled rye whose crunchiness makes it a messier affair than if it were housed in thick French bread. The cheese easily overpowers the slices of beef, and its shape makes dunking difficult in ramekins of not very beefy au jus and not very spicy sauce. Encouraged by the mention of roasted walnuts, I'd hoped the cold turkey pesto sandwich, also with provolone and tomatoes, would offer something a bit different in the way of taste and texture. Sadly, that's where its uniqueness started and stopped. More flavorful turkey and a white pesto dressing with less of a tang would have improved this sandwich more than a few nuts.

If the sliced chicken is not dry and flavorless, the cold Cobb might be Ncounter's best sandwich. On baked focaccia with an herb-sprinkled top, the bacon and avocado hold their own against sub-par tomatoes, cheese, and (thankfully) a very light application of a ranch-like dressing. Come to think of it, a better idea might be to order it sans bird.

The chicken also should come under consideration when ordering one of Ncounter's salads. Five of the six options feature it (the only one that doesn't is the Tuna Apple-Walnut), and oddly enough, there are no non-meat selections in the bunch. There is the Original Chop, featuring neat rows of arugula, cranberries, corn, pecans, chicken, and red pepper with a side of light basil pesto dressing. It's satisfying at first, but after a few bites, the Chop's lack of lively ingredients quickly turns the meal into the law of diminishing returns. It is, however, better than the Fusion Chopped Chicken, an item whose overall flavor seems best suited for a hotel banquet hall. Featuring a chunk of cabbage covered in a colorful yet chaotic array of sliced mango, peanuts, cubes of chicken, crispy noodles, and toasted sesame seeds, the taste is more pre-packaged than fresh, and a strong peanut dressing prevails throughout.

Ncounter's décor is clean and contemporary. Its black, gray, and orange color palette, slatted walls, and large windows surround a high-ceilinged room with a concrete floor, wood tables, and rural-themed artwork. Seating options include the dining area as well as an outdoor patio and a small bar serving coffee, tea, and a few cocktails. When the restaurant is busy, and the sounds of the '80s or this year's pop hits mix with the din of conversation from students, visiting parents, or Tempe business types, the seating isn't as much an issue as getting to the ordering counter, where guests entering the restaurant are forced to weave in and out of tables (and seated diners) and to the back of the room where the line is doubled up and moved to a smaller and more cramped section off to the side.

Ncounter's counter service is friendly, and the staff does a good job delivering orders and clearing tables in a timely manner. It's the area of the business that needs the least attention.

The biggest issue at Ncounter is the food. And my hope is that this Mill Avenue restaurant can make the changes needed to set it apart from the neighboring chains, to give the street a taste of what a locally owned restaurant can do, and to give its diners what they so desperately deserve: anything but average.

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8 comments
misskitty324
misskitty324

I also disagree with this review.. I've never had a bad meal here! Not to mention that 8 times out of 10 I will find myself waiting for a table. NCounter is definitely a step up from many other greasy spoons in the area, so "fresh" seems a not-so-far-off label. I've never had lunch here but breakfast never disappoints! Make sure you try the apple cinnamon jam (comes with english muffins or you can buy a jar). Delish.

aaron404
aaron404

I must be confused. We are talking about the N counter on Mill ave next to the light rail,correct? I eat there all the time and think the food is awesome,and I'm pretty picky about where I eat. I use the New Times to find new restaruants so when I saw N Counter I read this article. I've got to say that the negative review is way off! I think the author must have been having a bad day, perhaps her dog died or she missed her prozac that day. I could only picture a terribly unhappy person with all this great food in front of her and none of it was good enough, it made me think of the SNL "Debbie Downer"! I actually became annoyed reading the authors whining. I guess I'll have to look for her name on future articles because the New Times is usually on target. If you are still reading this rant go try N Counter, great food, great service, hot college atmosphere and a cool tricycle parked outside. I didn't know the owner had another spot but I'll give the TC place a try next.

rogerf
rogerf

I have to agree with this review completely. Check out ncounters website and you will see words like "FRESH" and from"Scratch.". Then go into the restaurant and order....."LIE" and "BIGGER LIE". If a giant jug of what looks to be PACE PICANTE SALSA poured over eggs whites that come out of a carton and whip cream that comes out of a can is what fresh and scratch mean in this place then a big shame on them. I'm all for small business and support local shops but to lie in order to save a buck and bring in customers is gross.....just like most of the margerine covered, cold, soggy, rubbery boiled chicken, salsa out of a can, mediocre items presented on ncounters menu are. Next thing you know they will try to raise their prices.......just saying the public who you want to be your loyal customers deserve the truth.....so to ncounter maybe its time to review what you claim to stand for and really do it.....what happened to trust and truth? Shame on ncounter for misleading to save a buck....really just makes your food taste worse...if that's even possible....fresh and scratch is not out of a can.

lkwahlberg
lkwahlberg

I couldn't disagree with this article (and Laura's critiques) more. Something to consider, TC Eggintons and their menu have been long considered a consistant place in the East Valley to get great food and service. Not only does the community regard them that way but they have also been listed as "Best of Phoenix" for breakfast restaurants. That same consistency in service and quality has carried over in Ncounter. I can honestly say I have NEVER had anything less than an amazing meal at either restaurant and want to take the opportunity to congratulate the TC Eggingtons and Ncounter team on a job very well done. I would recommend this restaurant to everyone.

tom2
tom2

First of all, am I the only on who thinks that Ncounter sounds like the name of a sleezy gay bar?

Anyways, what a hilarious restaurant review!  Homegirl picks apart mediocre brunch food as if she is eating at the French Laundry.  Speaking of mediocrity, this article reads like a first week assignment in English 101:

 

"Hiding under a white mountain range of whipped cream"  LOL!

 

 

 

kellann
kellann

Totally disagree with this article! We love ncounter - fresh, great tasting, quality food. We have had nothing but amazing experiences there from the food to the service. ncounter is a breath of fresh air on Mill Ave. backed by a family that cares about their customers (truly) and the experience they provide. Have you seen what they posted on their Facebook page? Making lemonade today!! What a classy way to accept constructive criticism. They value feedback hands down. I can't say how pleased I am that this family-owned restaurant is now on Mill and how good the food really is. Experience it for yourself!! Awesome food, fun/vibrant atmosphere, amazing staff - it's all there. 

ChefRodolforeyes
ChefRodolforeyes

I have to agree, I get the idea and like the concept. Many opportunities missed though, the food does have a "run of the mill" feel to it. Food has come a long way since TC Eggingtons opened... not to say that proven good food shouldn't be offered, because it should! The food is "basic" at best, from the "spring" salad to the sandwiches.... nothing special. There is nothing used on the entire menu that feels like it leaves a lasting impression. Fast?.. yes, Fresh?...ok, Tasty?... not so much! I'm sorry Nicole, but if we have to base our opinion on Ncounter on competition, then we have a bigger problem!! The standard for a restaurant isn't how much worse their competition is, it's how good they are on their own!!

Nicole
Nicole

I disagree entirely!  I grew up on TC Egginton breakfast and have too many flavorable favorites to name.  When at ASU, my friends and I would make the drive to Eggintons weekly for the breakfast and lunch items better than anything else out there.  Now that I have children of my own, we choose the modern NCounter for its quick options and modern setting.  We love the tradition of proven TC items that are built into the NCounter menu.  We drive from Gilbert, but if I was a current ASU student, I'd be overly-thrilled to have NCounter so close!

 
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