When it comes to burgers, we hold certain truths to be self-evident: the higher you climb up the price point ladder, the more drastic measures will be taken to gussy up its form. That means upgrades like dry-aged beef and ‘ketchup leather.’
For Upland chef Justin Smilie, that sort of self-masturbatory exercise is exactly what he wants to avoid. “As a customer, a burger should never be about ‘let me think what the chef is trying to say here.’ I hate bougie burgers for that very reason. Burgers, tacos—you don’t mess with that stuff.”
Smilie made a name for himself in New York’s kitchens, but it is his California roots he turns to for bun-and-patty inspiration—namely the crown jewel of burger culture, In-N-Out.
“Even though I left SoCal as a teenager, that experience of eating a double-double is something that’s always stuck with me. They set the bar pretty damn high.”
Smilie’s ode to the California classic isn’t lost on his customers either. Upland sells anywhere from 60 to 70 burgers per day—a miraculous feat when you consider that the same restaurant is also dishing out dishes like slow cooked lamb neck with potato petals, pimenton, and bulgarian feta.
Here we talk shop with Smilie about his burger philosophy, as well as strategy for assembling an In-N-Out style burger.
Photos by Liz Barclay; Gifs by Danny Scanzoni
Remember, this is an homage, so not everything is played by the book. Smilie replaces the typical Iceberg wedge with a slaw mixture: shredded Gem lettuce, Peppadew peppers, cilantro, and scallion. “I like how the juices latch on to the shredded lettuce.”
For the bun, Smilie forgoes the uber-popular Martin’s potato roll for Orwashers sesame bun. “It does a good job of sponging up the juices, and it’s got a nice combination of sweet, salt, and tanginess.“
It ain’t In-N-Out if it isn’t a double-double. “Double patty is a must.”
Smilie opts for grass-fed beef patties and uses a mixture of chuck, brisket, and short-rib. It’s fatty and unctuous without being overpowering. “They’re a little leaner—definitely not as rich as Shake Shack. Dry-aged burgers are super delicious but they’re so rich; it’s almost like you need to share it with someone.”
Make 4oz patties to achieve a charred exterior. “You don’t want to pack your patties super tight, otherwise the meat won’t crumble the way you want it to.” For the home cook without a griddle, place your patties on a skillet, medium high heat, and cook two minutes per side. “You’ll know when to flip when you start to see the Maillard (brown crust) creep its way up the side.”
Always go for standard American cheese. “I’m partial to Land O’ Lakes.”
For good measure, Smilie marks his patty with a California Republic flag. “My goal here is to straddle a drive-thru and restaurant burger. A lot of chefs just don’t know when to say when.”
*Bonus: For his ‘Secret Sauce,’ Smilie uses 2 cups of Hellmann’s mayo, 1/2 cup of ketchup, chopped Cornichons, red onion, chives, parsley, capers, and an ounce of brandy for good measure. “The brandy adds heat, sweetness, and depth.”