Q: What happens when you cross counter service with cross-cultural food?
A: Counter Culture.
At least that's what occurred to Jason Aufrichtig nine years ago when he started what's become a mainstay for Santa Fe locals. Serving only breakfast and lunch so he, his wife Elaine, and their daughter could "have a family life," it became a hang-out for Baca Street artists. As Counter Culture's notoriety grew, it attracted a more general Santa Fe crowd and, inevitably, tourists. Yet you still order at the counter, with its row of coffee pots and chalk menu on blackboards. The interior is contemporary urban chic: concrete floor, long tables, and metal chairs, with the steady hum of a refrigerator that separates the dining area from the open kitchen.
Jason, now thirty-eight, has short hair, wears his white chef's apron, and looks you straight in the eye when he speaks. "It's a café," he insists, not a restaurant. "You can come in for a muffin and cappuccino, or a steak and glass of wine." The cappuccino maker whirs loudly on cue.
If it's "only" a café, the place has been known for steady quality in its eclectic variety of dishes, from Mediterranean to Thai. It's no accident. After obtaining a degree in culinary arts in 1987 from Manhattan's New School, Jason trained further in New York restaurants. After moving to Santa Fe in 1991, he worked at Santacafé, then became chef at Café Pasqual's, "That was the point where I was able to take my creativity and do what I wanted." After a stint at Pranzo, "I decided it was time to go out on my own."
He started a catering business, found a great location on Baca Street, and business grew. Now they're open for dinner. "You get removed from your passion," he says. "You're wearing five different hats. Dinner gave me a chance to come up with a new menu." Even so, the staff still doesn't need him to cook.
Yet when I come with my friend Lisa on a Saturday evening, he's at the grill and happy to be there. The sun's lowering, the air's cooling off, and people chat at outdoor tables while eating and sipping wine. The entrees, eleven on a printed menu and two written at the counter, go for between ten to twelve dollars. Jason joins us for a while and I tell him that, given the quality and size of portions, it's one of the best deals in town. He nods his head, says thanks. He knows.
The menu is literally all over the world map, with Asian, continental, Mediterranean, Southwest, Indian, and Mexican dishes. For $3.50, I try a chilled organic tomato soup, made with sour cream, strips of fresh basil, and a spicy kick at the end. At Jason's recommendation, I order grilled chicken with mushrooms in a red wine sauce, accompanied by grilled veggies and buttermilk mashed potatoes. Lisa goes for lighter fare, an Eastern grilled ahi dish with a mango chutney sauce.
It's all up to Counter Culture's great value standards. You can order beer, or reasonably priced bistro wines supplied by Santa Fe's three locally owned wine distributors. Lisa sums up her feelings when Jason heads back to the kitchen. "Dinner has a feel of loving attention, as if he'd looked forward to it for some time."
That's the truth. But what about the impact of serving three meals a day on family life? "We'll have to see," Jason says. "So far we're trying to work out our schedule. Once dinner catches on, it's bound to be a challenge."
Counter Culture is at the cornerstone of the colorful Baca Street neighborhood. Breakfast and lunch from 8 to 3, dinner from 5 to 9- Tuesday through Saturday. Beer and wine. 505.995.1105.