One side effect of indoor dining’s long, pandemic-fueled hiatus was the preponderance of ghost kitchens, with top chefs resorting to takeaway-only concepts that married their technical savoir-faire with nostalgic comfort food flavors. Josh Phillips of Espita Mezcaleria was no exception. Alongside former chef Rob Aikens, Espita’s “Master Mezcalier” and GM launched Ghostburger last August, boasting a to-go menu of cheesesteaks, boozy milkshakes, and, of course, the eponymous smash burgers, which became so popular they even took the 2021 Rammy award for the best pop-up in D.C. One of the most popular? A mashup of the all-American smash burger and the Mexican flavors Espita is known for.
“Ghostburger was originally designed to be run as a simple pop-up out of the kitchen at Espita, so we looked at cross-utilizing as many ingredients from the Espita menu as possible,” explains Phillips. “It felt natural to do a Mexican-inspired burger with things we use all the time.”
Toppings for La Hamburguesa thus include macha and tomatillo salsas, as well as the queso Oaxaca usually used in the restaurant’s tlayudas.
“Queso Oaxaca is like mozzarella in that it has a very clean flavor,” explains Phillips. “The two salsas on this burger and the meat are all very assertive flavors, so we like that the queso Oaxaca plays a supporting role, flavor wise, while adding a really nice texture to the burger.”
Speaking of those more assertive sauces, both are made in-house — and both begin with a base of deep-fried garlic. Phillips notes, nevertheless, that that roasted garlic is “absolutely an acceptable substitution” for home cooks to help get that rich backbone of caramelized flavor to which are added either a panoply of nuts, seeds and dried chiles, in the case of the macha, or smoked tomatillos, jalapeños and serranos in the case of the salsa verde.
If making both salsas at home feels like too much faff, fear not; Phillips says you could easily pick just one or the other to accompany the charred patty and gooey cheese.
“The macha is easier to make, since it doesn’t involve smoking,” says Phillips, “but if I was going to keep one to keep things simpler, I would probably keep the smoked tomatillo salsa.”
To infuse it with that smoky flavor, he recommends engineering your own stovetop smoker with a deep hotel pan or metal baking dish and a perforated pan that fits into it. Simply put a small pile of wood chips in one end of the dish, place the food you’re smoking in a shallow perforated pan at the other end, and cover.
“Put it on your range at high heat until the wood begins smoking, and then reduce to medium-low,” he says. “Smoke away!”
Once both salsas are made, not only is La Hamburguesa a cinch to pull together, but you’ve also got the perfect homemade condiments for jazzing up eggs, tacos, or a simple cheese quesadilla. (Plus major boasting rights. You’ve earned ‘em.)
For the roasted garlic
- 3 heads garlic
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil
For the salsa macha
- 75 grams (about ½ cup) sesame seeds, toasted
- 75 grams (about ½ cup) almonds, crushed and toasted
- 75 grams (about ½ cup) peanuts, crushed and toasted
- 2 grams (about 1 to 2 pieces) chile de arbol
- 7.5 grams (about 1 piece) pasilla de Oaxaca (cleaned weight), toasted and then soaked in warm water to soften
- 18 grams (about 3 pieces) guajillo chile (cleaned weight), toasted and then soaked in warm water to soften
- 30 grams (about 4 to 5 pieces) pasilla chiles (cleaned weight), toasted and then soaked in warm water to soften
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 5 tablespoons sesame oil
- 1¼ cup canola oil
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
For the charred tomatillo salsa
- 300 grams (about 10) tomatillos
- 80 grams (1 small) white onion
- 45 grams (2 to 3) jalapeño chiles, halved and seeded
- 15 grams (about 2) serrano chiles, halved and seeded
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
- ⅓ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
- 2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2¼ teaspoons mustard seeds, soaked overnight
- 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons distilled vinegar
- 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
- 1 bunch each cilantro and basil, wrapped in cheesecloth
For each burger
- 1 potato bun
- 2 4-ounce beef patties
- 6 grams (1 teaspoon) kosher salt
- 20 grams (about 2 tablespoons) salsa macha
- 6 grams (about 3 sprigs) cilantro
- 30 grams (1 ounce) queso Oaxaca
- 30 grams (about 2 tablespoons) smoked tomatillo salsa
Roast the garlic for both salsas. At the restaurant, they deep-fry the garlic, so if you’ve got a deep-fryer handy, go for it. If not, preheat the oven to 400º F, and cut the tops off of the heads of garlic. Drizzle with olive oil, wrap in aluminum foil, and set on a baking tray. Roast for 30 to 40 minutes, until tender and deeply caramelized. Measure out 60 grams for the salsa macha and 20 grams for the tomatillo salsa (about 3½ tablespoons and 1 heaping tablespoon, respectively) and set aside. Reserve any remaining roasted garlic for another use. (Like homemade garlic bread!)
Make the salsa macha. Place the rehydrated chilis in a food processor, and process until coarsely ground. Do the same with the toasted nuts. Combine all of the salsa ingredients except for the lime juice in a saucepan, and bring to a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes, then set aside to cool, and season with lime juice.
Make the tomatillo salsa. Preheat the broiler. Halve the tomatillos, and place, cut side-down, on a sheet tray. Broil until charred, then set aside to cool. Once cooled, cut each tomatillo half into 8 pieces.
Decrease the oven temperature to 425º F. Cut the onions into ½-inch pieces, and arrange on a baking sheet. Char the onions for 8 to 10 minutes until golden brown.
Reduce the oven temperature to 400º F. Place the chiles on a baking sheet, cut side-down, and roast until the skin is blistered. Leave the chiles to cool, then finely chop them.
Smoke the tomatillos, jalapeños, and serranos. First, put a small pile of wood chips in the end of a deep hotel pan or deep-sided metal baking pan. Put the tomatillos, jalapeños, and serranos into a shallow, perforated pan and place over the deep hotel pan at the opposite end of the wood chips. Cover with a lid. Set the pan over at high heat, and cook, keeping a careful watch over it, until the wood begins to smoke. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and smoke for 10 minutes.
Place all of the tomatillo salsa ingredients in a pan, and cook for about ten minutes, or until the onions and tomatillos are just tender. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Season to taste.
Make the burgers. Season the beef patties, and cook on a hot plancha or in a hot cast iron skillet over high heat. Sear for about 30 seconds, then smash using two griddle spatulas until flattened. Flip the burgers and sear 1 minute more on the other side.
Add ½ ounce of queso Oaxaca to each patty; the cooking from the burger should be enough to melt the cheese.
Toast the buns, and spread with salsa macha on both sides. Stack the first burger on the bun, followed by the smoked tomatillo salsa. Add the second patty and more salsa, and then top with cilantro sprigs. Finish with the top bun, and serve immediately.
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