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.
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.