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Ghostburger, that pandemic pop-up, is now ready for its close-up

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Josh and Kelly Phillips, the co-founders of Espita Mezcaleria, swear they had no intention of cannibalizing their own concept when they began looking for a permanent home for Ghostburger, their pop-up and linked tourniquet. to the pandemic designed to stop the potentially deadly flow of red ink as the couple headed into winter 2020.

They did some serious research, almost signing a lease at one location, but eventually came back to the space where Ghostburger first made a name for itself: at the corner of Ninth and N NW streets, Espita’s home, that the owners debuted to great fanfare. in March 2016. The decision for 86 the restaurant – the couple’s first – was not as difficult as one might think.

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The Espita kitchen, after all, was already equipped for work. Any other space would have required significant construction. “Everything is delayed right now. Prices are up on construction. So, we’re like, we already have the space,” Kelly said in a phone interview. “So why would we spend all that money when we can just flip Espita? Financially, it was the smartest thing to do.

Plus, Josh added, Espita had become something of a misfit after Destination Unknown Restaurants, the founders’ parent company, began channeling its energies into Destino and Taqueria Las Gemelas, the sister establishments that together span much of the world. same territory as Espita. “We didn’t feel like we were giving up anything by closing Espita,” he said.

So late in the summer, the sidekick has officially replaced the star. Espita left the stage and turned the spotlight to Ghostburger. Perhaps we should have seen this coming early on, in August 2020, when Ghostburger’s debut exceeded owners’ expectations, an admittedly low bar in Kelly’s mind. “I thought it was going to be a flop,” she said. “I really did.”

But at the very least, directors hoped Ghostburger could generate between $5,000 and $8,000 a week, enough to keep staff employed during those months when the weather would turn cold and the customers, still unvaccinated and suspicious of the idea of ​​eating indoors, would turn to their mobile apps. for sustenance. Ghostburger’s first week generated $26,000, Josh said. A month later, he was pulling in between $40,000 and $50,000 a week.

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You could say that Ghostburger owes much of its success to the very pandemic that inspired the pop-up. One of the many ways we coped in those early months, as deaths increased along with our sense of isolation, was to seek the comfort of food that tripped up the pleasure centers of our brains, can -even being reminded us of a time when we didn’t. ask permission to kiss a loved one. In the absence of leadership, Americans have turned to salt, sugar, carbs and fats to quell their fears, at least until they pick up their phones and start scrolling fate again.

Yes, Ghostburger filled that need, but that’s not why the pop-up became such a devouring beast that it killed the restaurant that spawned it, the equivalent of matriphagy in the restaurant community. No, the pop-up morphed into a corporate brand for the usual reasons: the people involved cared enough to pay attention to the smallest details. Ghostburger’s brick-and-mortar debut confirms this.

From the day it launched, Robert Aikens and Ben Tenner, the corporate executive chef and director of kitchen operations, respectively, for Destination Unknown, took the pop-up seriously, putting the kind of thought into the burgers and smashed sandwiches they would do for more weight. projects. It all started with a custom blend of burgers, a “milder” and less aged version of the one Aikens originally created at Dandelion, Stephen Starr’s gastropub in Philadelphia. The mix incorporates rich, stringy lengths of hanger steak sourced from famed meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda. The cut adds the slightest mineral flavor to the burger.

“I wanted it to be approachable, with little age or to give it some funky, because that can be off-putting to some,” Aikens told me in September 2020, just weeks after Ghostburger opened. “We also wanted to make it affordable, and obviously the longer you age the beef, the more expensive it becomes.”

Two years ago, Ghostburger offered three burger preparations. It now has five, with a handful of optional “upgrades,” allowing for even more variation between these potato buns. The hardest decision may be to order a patty or two with your favorite burger. In the best of all possible worlds – by which I mean a world in which burgers are considered healthy food and not a threat to the planet – you would opt for a double stack, which gives this wonderful beef its full expression. But the world is a cruel place, full of diseases and natural disasters and consequences for your actions. Go with just one patty.

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You can also replace the beef with a homemade vegetarian patty, made with cremini mushrooms, beets, quinoa, lentils, parsnips and more. Fresh off the flat top, the crispy round sports a sort of charred cherry complexion and packs more spice and flavor than your traditional seasoned ground beef round. It also makes for a spongy burger: this plant-based patty just can’t provide resistance no matter how much crunch it picks up off the grill.

Among the burgers, my favorite is La Hamburguesa, a patty topped with Oaxaca cheese, smoked tomatillos and a peanut salsa macha. A respectful nod to the old Espita kitchen where it was conceived, La Hamburguesa quietly crosses the border enjoying some of Mexico’s classic ingredients in burger form. I’m also a fan of the new BBQ burger, topped with coleslaw, smoked gouda cheese, gravy and a single thick onion ring, which offers a smashing crunch, the kind usually provided by potato chips or even a tile. . My only disappointment was the Frenchie, which lacked enough caramelized onions to balance out the bitter edge of the blue cheese.

From the start, Ghostburger was a balancing act, between flagship restaurant and pop-up, between Philadelphia (the place Josh and Kelly Phillips call home) and Mexico (the land that informed almost everything in Espita ), between ground beef and barbacoa, and between tradition and innovation. Sometimes the boundaries between these elements and influences blurred to the point that they were virtually invisible.

Even with Espita out of sight, the restaurant still wields influence over Ghostburger. Its presence is felt not only in obvious leftovers, like La Hamburguesa, but in more subtle preparations.

Take the cheese sauce applied to the sandwich dubbed, somewhat ironically I suppose, a “Real Cheesesteak”. The kitchen adds pickled jalapeños to the sauce, in quantities almost too minute to detect, but felt as a minor irritation to the palate amid the mess of onions pickled in sherry oil and vinegar. That statement won’t win me any friends in Philadelphia, but I’ll take Ghostburger’s cheesesteak eight times out of 10 over one at Pat’s, Geno’s, or Jim’s. (Philadelphians, feel free to jump to the comments section now.)

Once you start looking for them, you’ll notice Mexican touches throughout the menu: the chipotle mayonnaise slathered on the spicy fried chicken sandwich (whose main attribute is its juicy thigh meat); the Fresno and jalapeño peppers that ignite the vegetable patty; the chili salt sprinkled on the crinkle cut fries; Fresno Butter Sauce served with the wings; Mexican coca; and the light mezcal smoke that informs the Mayahuel margarita, available, like all cocktails here, in a six-ounce drink, 25-ounce pitcher, or bespoke eight-ounce Ghostburger to-go can.

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The Ghostburger menu remains a well-built affair despite the restaurant’s new standalone status. Additions are few, but they include an Italian hoagie which, like its cheesesteak cousin, is served on a Sarcone roll trucked in from Philadelphia. The hoagie subscribes to the theory that its charcuterie should be good enough to eat on its own, and it starts with long, almost translucent slivers of Parma prosciutto, so salty, so nutty, so buttery. The new Ghostburger also has a brunch menu, which performs a trick: it’ll have you dreaming of a cheesesteak hash, spiked with the yolk of a fried egg.

The former Espita space has been stripped of its Mexican accents, including this stunning mural by Yescka in which a mohawk-spiked Frida Kahlo looked like a founding member of GBH. In its place, the owners have created a minimalist environment, a neon pink playground for the restaurant’s official mascot, a perpetually scared ghost. You feel like you’ve been transported inside a Ms. Pac-Man machine, where you can consume all the Ghostburgers you want – until your quarters run out.

Space, in fact, looks ripe for easy replication, which is probably the point. Kelly and Josh Phillips intend to expand Ghostburger’s footprint, with company-owned storefronts in the United States and possibly even franchisees overseas. If this plan comes to fruition, I think it will be important to look back at Ghostburger’s roots and reflect on the obsessions that helped create the brand.

One afternoon, via text, Josh was telling me about the kitchen’s attempts to make their own onion rings. The kitchen would prepare a batch and let the rings rest for a few minutes before packing them for transport. Josh would then drive these rings around town on his motorcycle, looking to emulate the trip they would take with Uber Eats or DoorDash. Josh insisted the rings were delicious, but none stood up to the rigors of traffic through town. That’s why Ghostburger opted for heavy-duty third-party rings.

“Now that I write this, it sounds like one of our more ridiculous practices to come out of our pandemic experience,” he wrote. “Lol.”

1250 Ninth St. NW, 202-827-5237; ghostburgerdc.com.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Nearest metro: Mount Vernon Square-Seventh Street-Convention Center, a short walk from the restaurant.

Prices: $3 to $30 for all menu items.



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