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, tablets, 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 touch screens, it should not be surprising to see a restaurant, NCounter, using the alphabet as part of its logo and decor.
NCounter, which specializes in breakfast and lunch, started in 2011 in Tempe as an offshoot of the popular T.C. Eggington’s restaurant in Mesa. That original location remains open across the street from Mill Avenue / Third Street light rail station. With a recent sale of the restaurant to a franchising company, NCounter has begun to expand, and the restaurant’s second location is in an equally accessible site. The Downtown Phoenix NCounter is in the ground floor of the Union apartment building, across from the Roosevelt / Central light rail station.
The original NCounter in Tempe has as much space outside as inside, and the emphasis on patio dining is good match to Mill Avenue’s shade and pedestrian culture. Bike racks are located just about everywhere on Mill with several right outside NCounter. The Roosevelt location also has a patio, but it faces east toward the morning sun, making it a hot space during the summer. Some trees may provide shade as they mature. At least the bike rack has year-round shade. It’s found inside the Union parking garage, with an entrance just south of the restaurant patio.
In keeping with the restaurant’s fast-casual service model, its playful name, and its signature look, customers generally order at a counter then receive a metal placard in the shape of a letter. That letter lets staff know which order goes to which table. Menus are located on overhead screens with printed versions available as well. Off-menu specials and a daily soup selection are usually written on a white board near the counter. Full service is also available for anyone who chooses to sit at the small bar counter found at each location.
NCounter’s foundation is breakfast, which is served at all hours the restaurant is open. There are of course plenty of egg dishes, some of them basic like eggs with toast and potatoes and others more multi-faceted like the open-faced croque monsieur with two eggs, gruyere cheese, mustard, and ham on sourdough bread. That dish falls under the heading of “benes and such,” presumably short for eggs Benedict. There are also separate categories for “sautees” and breakfast sandwiches, including a build-your-own option for customized ordering.
Other breakfast food includes pancakes, waffles, and French toast. All come in standard versions with various options for toppings. Blueberries are a natural match for the pancakes, strawberries with whipped cream go well with waffles, and a bananas Foster topping is ideal for the French toast. For a treat, the red velvet waffles with their dark batter and cream cheese icing are a worthwhile indulgence. Meat side dishes — bacon, pork sausage, or turkey sausage patties — are ordered a la carte since they don’t come automatically with breakfast entrees.
Since Ncounter stays open until 3 PM every day, the restaurant has a lunch menu. The sandwiches are all hearty choices. The portabellini is a meatless specimen full of mushrooms, artichoke, spinach, provolone, and balsamic mayo dressing. Grilled cheese comes with bacon in the Melt Down or with chicken and bit of spice in the Peco Grille. Other sandwiches like Turkey Pesto and Focaccia Roma Chicken are combinations of tender poultry and Mediterranean flavors. All sandwiches come with a choice of chips, pasta salad, or spring mix greens.
The menu also includes a full array of entree-sized salads. The trendiest might be the Super Kale, with copious leaves of the popular green served raw with a topping of chicken, edamame, almonds, and cranberries. The Original Chopped Salad is actually not so original since it’s one of many copies of Bernie Kantak’s creation. Nevertheless, it’s a satisfying, hearty choice. The Mediterranean Fresh salad is spring mix topped with crumbled feta, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, artichoke hearts, red pepper, red onion, and sunflower seeds, all under a balsamic dressing.
Ncounter doesn’t have a dessert menu per se, but both locations have display cases full of fresh baked goods such as muffins, cookies, and scones. When it comes to drinks, Ncounter covers the obvious morning choices well with fresh-squeezed orange juice and a full selection of espresso beverages and teas. Unlike many breakfast places, Ncounter has a liquor license that proves useful, particularly on weekends. Brunch cocktails like mimosas and bloody Marys are the unsurprising specialty here, along with newer creations like frozen rose wine.
Since NCounter’s debut on Mill Avenue early in the decade, the restaurant has attained a level of consistency and quality in its breakfast and lunch offerings. With the prospect of further expansion in the future, including a location in northeast Phoenix on the Scottsdale border, it makes sense to hope for a commitment to maintaining its original appeal while the brand grows. No matter what happens in terms of future site selection and potential franchising, NCounter’s first two locations in urban venues in the heart of Tempe and Phoenix are a good place to start.
2/17/2019 Update: Since the publication of this review, NCounter has changed its name to Daily Jam.
11/6/2019 Update: Since the publication of this review, the downtown Phoenix location of NCounter has closed.
310 S. Mill Ave., Tempe AZ 85281
Mill Avenue / Third Street station