For a society supposedly obsessed with brevity and starved for time, we seem to have an unexpected and enduring fascination with word games. Scrabble, the classic, now exists in digital formats for smartphones, the iPad, and Facebook. The newer alternative, Words with Friends, provides a similar game with a social component added. Given the widespread enthusiasm for arranging letter tiles on game boards or LCD screens, it should not be surprising that a new restaurant, Ncounter, has used letter tiles as part of its logo and decor.
|exterior from south|
Looks are a big deal at Ncounter, located conveniently right across the street from the Mill Avenue / Third Street light rail station in Downtown Tempe. The site was formerly home to Mill End’s, a place for coffee and crepes that seemed to be running on fumes in its final years. The people behind T.C. Eggington’s in Mesa have had the place completely redone, opening it up to natural light on three sides and adding a patio. All that sunshine is a fit with the restaurant’s emphasis on breakfast and lunch.
Of course, with all that change, there’s definitely a need to get one’s bearings. The multiple entrances can be a bit confusing. For best results, skip the doors facing both Third Street and Mill; instead, use the one facing south toward Mojo Yogurt. This approach provides the most direct access to the “Ncounter” where customers place their orders. In keeping with both the restaurant’s fast-casual service model and its signature look, everyone then receives a metal placard in the shape of a letter. That letter lets staff know which order goes to which table.
The counter service approach, apparently growing in popularity, takes some getting used to. There’s always the question of whether to tip or how to obtain drink refills. Thankfully, the restaurant seems to have invested in hiring and training a good staff, even in a partially self-service environment. Employees at the counter are generally knowledgeable abount ingredients and preparation techniques. It is, however, frustrating to see apostrophe errors on the menu (e.g. “classic egg’s benedict”) at a place with decor related to proper spelling.
|bananas foster french toast|
Given the alphabetical theme at Ncounter, it’s tempting to assign the restaurant letter grades. That’s an oversimplified approach, but if the restaurant has opened with an A in decor and service, the natural question is if the food also deserves that grade. Some items clearly merit high marks. The omelets are a success. The “veg” model is loaded with color and flavor thanks to abundant bell peppers, mushrooms, and cheese. Bananas foster French toast is another early favorite with a sweet, rum-based sauce enveloping two thick slabs of tender bread.
|grilled wheat germ granola cakes|
Other breakfast food includes pancakes in several varieties. These are nicely textured, and the “original” option comes with variety of fruit toppings. The alternative version is “grilled wheat germ granola” pancakes. These are enjoyable due to their crunchy topping, although they’re not the whole grain choice that their name might suggest. Instead, they’re a variation on the standard pancakes with the granola on top adding another dimension. Meat sides such as bacon or sausage must be ordered a la carte since they don’t come automatically with breakfast entrees.
Since Ncounter stays open until the unusually precise time of 3:05 PM every day, the restaurant has a lunch menu as well. While the breakfast foods at Ncounter make the restaurant a straight A student in the morning, some of the midday foods still have room for improvement. There’s a different soup every day. Cream of asparagus was generously loaded with thin pieces of the green vegetable, but chicken noodle soup had little pasta to back up its name. Both suffered from the most common shortcoming of restaurant soups: excessive saltiness.
The sandwiches are hearty lunch choices. The portabellini, a tasty meatless specimen full of mushrooms, spinach, and provolone, benefits from a balsamic dressing but would probably do even better with some time in a panini press so that the appealing bread could be toasted to match the grilled vegetables inside. Other sandwiches like turkey pesto and focaccia roma-chicken work well with their combinations of tender poultry and Mediterranean flavors. All sandwiches come with a choice of chips or a spring mix salad.
|focaccia roma-chicken sandwich|
Ncounter doesn’t have a dessert menu per se, but the same counter where orders are placed has display cases full of fresh baked goods. An apple streusel muffin showed initial promise with a crumbly, donut-like top; however, the muffin’s lower half was dry and less enticing. A maple oat pecan scone is a thorough success. The combination of ingredients yields a scone with a pleasing combination of bold maple flavor and assertive texture from nuts and grain. Get one to go even if you’re not immediately hungry for dessert during your visit.
|maple oat pecan scone|
When it comes to drinks, Ncounter covers the obvious morning choices well with fresh-squeezed orange juice ready at the counter and a coffee bar off to the side with a full selection of espresso beverages and loose leaf teas. Unlike many breakfast places, Ncounter has a liquor license, something that has been expected ever since fences were seen being installed around the perimeter of the patio during the extensive preparations of the site. Brunch cocktails like mimosas and bloody Marys are the unsurprising specialty here.
|peppered Italian salad|
Free wifi lets adults get work done while lingering over coffee, and plentiful high chairs coupled with quick service make this a good place for family meals. Ncounter is also welcome because it fills an often-neglected need for breakfast on Mill Avenue. The food still needs a few adjustments, but the restaurant shows enough promise that it’s easy to imagine customers asking for a closing time of 3:05 AM instead of 3:05 PM. Pancakes and omelets after a night at some of the nearby clubs and bars? That might just be a triple word score for Downtown Tempe.
310 S. Mill Ave., Tempe AZ 85281
Mill Avenue / Third Street Station