2 burger chains worth a bite

What's up with this renewed yen for burgers? Dilworth's Big Daddy's Burger Bar is packing 'em in, the Ballantyne area recently got a Topz Healthier Burger Grill, and The Counter is becoming a fixture by SouthPark.

The trend, I figure, trails the economy. Besides being a way to eat out without dining, patties in a bun equal comfort, and we all can use a little comfort these days.

At any rate, burger joints are hot, and the Topz and Counter chains are soaking up that heat. Let's take a look:

The Counter puts an industrial spin on decor, from its matte aluminum finishes and garage door entrance to the stylish black-and-white photography and a clipboard order sheet that lets you order exactly what you want. The Web site calculates there are “312,120+” variations possible.

You choose burger makeup (beef, turkey, veggie, grilled chicken), size, bun (or lettuce, if you want it on that instead), cheese, topping(s), premium topping(s) and/or sauce(s). There's also a burger of the day, and those who don't like make-your-own can choose among signature combos.

With a list that encompasses herb goat cheese spread, grilled pineapple, housemade guacamole and apricot sauce, this has range. Servers are happy to put items on the side so you can tinker.

Also impressive: a veggie burger that's interesting (think black beans, corn and a somewhat falafel-y pasty quality), un-greasy sweet potato fries, fried onion strings, grilled vegetables and a commitment to the Certified Humane program, which seeks to ensure all farm animals used for food are treated humanely.

None of which matters if it's not good, of course. So I'm pleased to report it was.

Burgers aren't particularly cheap. A one-third-pounder of any incarnation is $7.95, although that does include a nicely hefty bun (or English muffin), plenty of cheese, a sauce and four toppings (in restrained portions).

Servers tend to be chatty and are quick to recommend. Besides a pretty good chocolate malt, there's also a beer and wine list.

All in all, the Counter is a stylish and substantial choice.

Topz offers a different sort of choice: Leanness. Burgers are made of chuck, white-meat turkey or veggie (the long-popular Gardenburger), and you can also have chicken breast or ahi tuna sandwiches.

The default bun is a light but nutty wheat, toasted and good. (You can have white if you insist.)

The turkey burger fared beautifully: juicy, well-grilled and flavorful. Beef was less enchanting, and the 1/2-pounder we ordered came as two 1/4-pounders, which counter staff (it's not table-service) should tell you. On the other hand, a 1/2-pounder is only $5.90. You can add American, cheddar or mozzarella for 50 cents, and sauces are a half-dozen condiments, including garlic ketchup that is really garlicky.

The most touted offering at Topz is the Aero Fries and Rings, which are baked, rather than deep-fried. The fries are much better than you'd think, with good potato flavor and a little seasoning. I'm not as keen on the onion rings, since their batter felt and tasted dry.

Hot dogs (low-fat, naturally) and salads, plus fruit shakes made with ice cream, are also available. And this may be the coolest idea in the place: There's a little bar of drink syrups – chocolate, vanilla, lemon-lime and cherry – so you can customize your drinks by adding a squirt of cherry, say, to your lemonade. Fun.

This is the first East-Coast location of the California-based franchise.