Ghosting is good now, at least when it comes to restaurants. Within two hours of accepting the first online orders for Ghostburger, the new takeout and delivery “ghost kitchen” run out of Espita Mezcaleria in Shaw, partner Josh Phillips reports sales of burgers, cheesesteaks, and cocktails matched three days worth of takeaway business from its regular Oaxacan-style menu.
The Ghostburger opening Tuesday marked an official D.C. comeback for Robert Aikens, a British expat who had a busy 2019 in New York City as the opening chef at two ambitious projects for hospitality magnate Stephen Starr: French bistro Pastis and Veronika, a buzzy project devoted to Eastern European classics like coulibiac (Russian fish pie) built inside a Swedish-based photography museum. Aikens says he hadn’t been back in the kitchen at Veronika since March 10.
“I wasn’t working, so I really couldn’t bloody afford to live in Manhattan,” Aikens says.
Aikens is married to Phillips’s sister, but before they become family, the Espita general manager and resident mezcal nerd knew the chef by his burgers. When Phillips was living in Philadelphia, Aikens opened the Dandelion pub for Starr with a mission to perfect the cheeseburger, consulting with famous butcher Pat LaFrieda before his beef blends spread far and wide. Philadelphia magazine declared the Dandelion had the best gastropub burger in the city in 2013.
Aikens wanted to bring those standards to Ghostburger while keeping prices reasonable. Each of the three smash burgers is $10 or less, but Aikens is still using a LaFrieda beef blend of hanger steak, short rib, chuck, flat iron, and “a bit of brisket.”
“Variety is the spice of life, as they say,” Aikens says. “It’s got good fat, good flavor.”
The Ghostburger is a classic riff on a Big Mac. Aikens developed “spooky sauce,” and Espita’s staff makes its own dill pickles, but the restaurant didn’t want to mess with American cheese or Martin’s potato rolls. There’s also La Hamburguesa, which adds mozzarella-like queso Oaxaca, Espita’s salsa macha, and smoked tomatillo relish to the patty. An avocado smash comes with guacamole, alfalfa sprouts, and chile relish. There’s a $2 surcharge for bacon, and a $3 premium for adding carnitas to the burger.
Espita chef de cuisine Ben Tenner developed a Philly cheesesteak ($15) with shaved ribeye, onions caramelized with thyme and sherry vinegar, and mayo with raw and roasted garlic on a roll trucked down from Philadelphia. Aikens tweaked the cheese whiz sauce from a nacho cheese he developed when he joined Espita as a chef and partner in 2017. Crinkle cut fries come sprinkled with chile salt that Espita uses on roasted vegetables. They can also be loaded with cheesesteak fillings ($12).
On the cocktail side, partner and beverage director James Simpson concocted a “Ghost Claw” hard seltzer by carbonating a blend of clarified grapefruit juice, grapefruit oleo-saccharum, Giffard grapefruit liqueur, and London dry gin. A bottled Americano seltzer contains vermouth, bitters, soda, and vanilla angostura.
“It comes out kind of like a slightly bitter adult root beer,” Phillips says.
Phillips says running the ghost kitchen allows Espita to use parts of the kitchen that were sitting vacant while the restaurant is operating at limited capacity. The new business also breaks up the monotony for a staff used to cranking at full speed.
“It’s kind of like, well, we could be bored or we can have fun,” Phillips says.
Ghostburger is open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. with a 10 p.m. close on Friday and Saturday. Saturday and Sunday brunch is 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Order online here.