Josh and Kelly Phillips, the co-founders of Espita Mezcaleria, swear they didn’t set out to cannibalize their own concept when they started searching for a permanent home for Ghostburger, their pop-up and pandemic-related tourniquet designed to stop the potentially life-threatening flow of red ink as the couple headed into the winter of 2020.
They conducted a search in earnest, nearly signing a lease at one location, but ultimately circled back to the space where Ghostburger first made its name: at the corner of Ninth and N streets NW, home of Espita, which the owners debuted to considerable fanfare in March 2016. The decision to 86 the restaurant — the first one from the couple — was not as fraught as you might think.
The Espita kitchen, after all, was already equipped for the job. Any other space would have required a significant build-out. “Everything is delayed right now. The prices are up on construction. So we’re like, we already have the space,” Kelly said during a phone interview. “So why would we spend all this money when we can just flip Espita? Financially, it was the smartest thing to do.”
Besides, added Josh, 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 cover much of the same turf as Espita. “We didn’t feel like we were abandoning anything by closing Espita,” he said.
So late in the summer, the sidekick officially superseded the star. Espita exited the stage and turned the spotlight over to Ghostburger. Perhaps we should have seen this coming from the very beginning, back in August 2020, when Ghostburger’s debut exceeded the 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, the principals hoped Ghostburger might generate between $5,000 and $8,000 a week, enough to keep staff employed during those months when the weather would turn cold and patrons, still unvaccinated and wary of dining indoors, would turn to their mobile apps for sustenance. The first week of Ghostburger generated $26,000, Josh said. A month later, it was pulling down between $40,000 and $50,000 per week.
You could argue Ghostburger owed much of its success to the very pandemic that inspired the pop-up. One of the many ways we coped during those early months, as the deaths increased along with our sense of isolation, was to seek the comfort of food that tripped our brains’ pleasure centers, maybe even reminded us of a time when we didn’t have to ask permission to hug a loved one. In the absence of leadership, Americans turned to salt, sugar, carbs and fat to calm their fears, at least until they picked up their phones and started doom scrolling again.
Yes, Ghostburger filled that need, but that’s not why the pop-up became a beast so all-consuming that it killed the restaurant that birthed it, the dining community’s equivalent of matriphagy. No, the pop-up morphed into a company brand because of the usual reasons: The people involved cared enough to pay attention to the smallest details. The bricks-and-mortar debut of Ghostburger just confirms it.
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 smash burgers and sandwiches that they would for weightier projects. It began with a custom burger blend, a “milder,” less-aged version of the one that Aikens originally created at Dandelion, the Stephen Starr gastropub in Philadelphia. The blend incorporates rich, ropy lengths of hanger steak sourced from Pat LaFrieda, the famed meat supplier. The cut adds the slightest mineral tang to the burger.
“I wanted it to be approachable, with not a lot of age or to give it any funkiness, as that can be off-putting to some,” Aikens told me in September 2020, only weeks after Ghostburger opened. “We also wanted to make it affordable, and obviously the longer you age beef, the more expensive it becomes.”
Two years ago, Ghostburger featured three hamburger preparations. It now has five, with a handful of optional “upgrades,” which make for even more variation between those potato buns. The hardest decision may be whether to order one or two patties with your preferred burger. In the best of all possible worlds — by which I mean, a world in which hamburgers are considered health food and not a menace to the planet — you would opt for a twin stack, which gives full expression to that wonderful beef. But the world is a cruel place, full of disease and natural disasters and consequences for your actions. Go with a single patty.
You can also replace the beef with a housemade vegetarian patty, which is built with cremini mushrooms, beets, quinoa, lentils, parsnips and more. Fresh from the flat top, the crusty puck sports a kind of charred cherry complexion and packs more spice and flavor than your traditional round of seasoned ground beef. It also makes for one squishy burger: That plant-based patty just can’t provide any resistance, no matter how much crustiness it picks up on the grill.
Among the burgers, my favorite remains La Hamburguesa, a patty accented with Oaxaca cheese, smoked tomatillos and a peanut salsa macha. A respectful nod to the former Espita kitchen where it was engineered, La Hamburguesa takes a leisurely drive across the border, savoring some of the classic ingredients of Mexico in burger form. I’m also a fan of the new barbecue burger, topped with slaw, smoked Gouda, sauce and a single, thick-cut onion ring, which provides a shattering crunch, the kind usually supplied by potato chips or even a tuile. My lone disappointment was the Frenchie, which lacked enough caramelized onions to balance out the bitter edge of the blue cheese.
From the beginning, Ghostburger was a balancing act, between an anchor restaurant and a pop-up, between Philadelphia (the place that Josh and Kelly Phillips call home) and Mexico (the land that informed almost everything at Espita), between ground beef and barbacoa, and between tradition and innovation. Sometimes the lines between these elements and influences blurred to the point that they were all but invisible.
Even with Espita out of the picture, the restaurant still exerts an influence over Ghostburger. Its presence is felt not just in the obvious holdovers, such as La Hamburguesa, but in more subtle preparations.
Take the cheese sauce applied to the sandwich dubbed, somewhat ironically, I suspect, a “Real Cheesesteak.” The kitchen adds pickled jalapeños to the sauce, in amounts almost too minute to detect, yet sensed as a minor irritation on the palate amid the mess of onions confited in oil and sherry vinegar. This statement will win me no friends in Philly, but I’ll take Ghostburger’s cheesesteak eight times out of 10 over one at Pat’s or Geno’s or Jim’s. (Philadelphians, free feel to skip to the comments section now.)
Once you start looking for them, you will spot Mexican touches throughout the menu: the chipotle mayo slathered on the spicy fried chicken sandwich (whose main attribute is its juicy thigh meat); the Fresno and jalapeño peppers that inflame the veggie patty; the chili salt sprinkled on the crinkle cut fries; the Fresno butter sauce served with the wings; the Mexican Coke; and the light mezcal smoke that informs the Mayahuel margarita, available, like all the cocktails here, in a six-ounce drink, a 25-ounce pitcher or an eight-ounce custom-made Ghostburger can for takeaway.
The Ghostburger menu remains a tightly constructed affair despite the restaurant’s new stand-alone status. The additions are few, but they include an Italian hoagie that is, like its cheesesteak cousin, served on a Sarcone’s roll trucked down from Philly. The hoagie subscribes to the theory that its cured meats should be good enough to eat on their own, and that begins with long, almost translucent ribbons of prosciutto de Parma, so salty, so nutty, so buttery. The new Ghostburger also has a brunch menu, which performs a neat trick: It will make you long for a cheesesteak hash, one enriched with the yolk of a sunny-side-up egg.
The former Espita space has been stripped of its Mexican accents, including that amazing Yescka mural in which a mohawk-spiked Frida Kahlo looked like she was a founding member of GBH. In its place, the owners have created a minimalist environment, a fluorescent pink playground for the restaurant’s official mascot, a perpetually startled 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.
The space, in fact, looks ready for easy replication, which is probably the point. Kelly and Josh Phillips have plans to expand Ghostburger’s footprint, with company-owned storefronts in the United States and maybe even franchisees overseas. Should that plan come 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.
Over text one afternoon, Josh was telling me about the kitchen’s attempts to make its own onion rings. The kitchen would prepare a batch and allow the rings to sit out for a few minutes before packing them up for transport. Josh would then drive those rings around town on his motorcycle, looking to mimic the journey they would take with Uber Eats or DoorDash. The rings, Josh insisted, were delicious, but none stood up to the rigors of crosstown traffic. Which is why Ghostburger went with sturdy, third-party rings.
“Now that I’m writing this down, this feels like one of our more ridiculous practices to come out of our pandemic experience,” he texted. “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, with a short walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $3 to $30 for all items on the menu.