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In the Kitchen With: Alex Stupak’s Cheeseburger Tacos

by Kristina Gill

Cheeseburger_Tacos2
If you had said to me “Let’s go get some cheeseburger tacos!” before last month, I would have looked at you with skepticism. That is, until I read chef Alex Stupak — of in New York — and food writer new book, . Now, not only do I want to go to , I really want to hop on a flight to Mexico City. But first, I want to try these at home! Read the story of the cheeseburger taco below; the recipe is made up of three components, the filling, the salsa roja, and the tortilla. A note on ingredients: If you are unable to find the and cheese in your usual shops, we have provided links for online resources for the chiles, and Chef Stupak recommends a mild jack cheese if you are unable to find Chihuahua Cheese. —

Tacos-Cover

Photography by

Cheeseburger Tacos

My wife, Lauren, and co-author, Jordana, discovered the cheeseburger taco together in Mexico City. We were all there for a marathon research trip to learn about al pastor—tacos filled with marinated pork shaved from a rotating spit called a trompo. We had 48 hours to speed through as many al pastor stands as we could reasonably manage; we had one job to do, and it didn’t include any cheeseburgers. I was checking out the trompo rig at El Rey del Taco in Coyoacon when I saw Lauren and Jordana talking to the griddle cook. There was a line forming around the corner and he was passing plate after plate of the same tacos over the counter. At that time in New York, people were camping out on a SoHo sidewalk to taste a Cronut; in Mexico City, they were queuing up for cheeseburger tacos.

The women ordered one taco and we all watched as the cook prepped the griddle with lard, added a burger patty and a handful of grated cheese, and attacked the thing with a pair of metal spatulas, chopping and scraping the melty mess as if he were mi cookie crumbles into ice cream at a Cold Stone Creamery. He swiped a flour tortilla with mayo, piled on the gooey beef, and topped it with sliced tomato and avocado. I really didn’t want to like this thing. But I did. We all did.

My god, cheeseburger tacos. Cheeseburger tacos. The absurdity of it can take your breath away. Mexico gifted its cuisine to America, and over time we gave it a patriotic makeover, drowning its nuances in seismic waves of nacho cheese. In return, I guess, we gave them cheeseburgers. This is cultural exchange at its most mystifying. The cheeseburger taco forces some uncomfortable questions—namely, what counts as Mexican food? If the answer is simply food that’s cooked by Mexicans, for Mexicans, in Mexico, using Mexican ingredients, then why is a cheeseburger taco not valid? And who is in a position to make that call? Not me, probably.

So I came back to New York, put a cheeseburger taco on the menu at , and watched it sell out every night—another cultish burger in a city that worships them. I’m not sure this taco makes a provocative statement when it is served in the United States, where there’s no reason to analyze why a restaurant would offer a burger. I don’t think anyone eating it at Empellon sees it as a symbol of globalization, or ponders what is gained or lost as one food culture bleeds into another. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe junk food is a universal golden calf and I just need to get right with the Lord. Nevertheless, you’re going to love it.

Note that the filling for this taco comes together rather quickly and it must be served and eaten immediately, or else the melted cheese will seize up. For this reason, the usual taco method doesn’t apply here; instead, you must make the tortillas first, and hold them warm while you prepare the cheeseburger mixture.

 

Stupak-and-Rothman_Tacos_Cheeseburger-Tacos

Makes 12 Tacos
Advance preparation

Salsa Roja (see below), for serving
1 recipe Corn or Flour Tortillas (see below)

For the filling

– 1 teaspoon lard or vegetable oil
– 1 pound ground beef
– Kosher salt, as needed
– 1 pound Chihuahua cheese, grated

To assemble the tacos

– 3⁄4 cup mayonnaise
– 1 plum tomato, cut into 12 slices
– 1 avocado, cut into 12 slices lengthwise
– 1⁄2 medium white onion, minced
– 60 cilantro leaves (from about 15 sprigs), roughly chopped
– 2 limes, each cut into 6 wedges

Make one batch of tortillas and hold them warm.

Make the filling: Set a 12-inch nonstick saute pan over medium heat and add the lard. Once the fat is shimmering, add the ground beef and cook, stirring, until crumbly and browned, about 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt. Add the grated cheese and stir until completely melted, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Assemble the tacos: Lay out the warm tortillas on serving plates. Place a tablespoon of mayonnaise on each tortilla and spread using the back of a spoon. Evenly distribute the cheeseburger filling among the tortillas and top with the tomato and avocado slices, minced onion, chopped cilantro, and a drizzle of Salsa Roja. Squeeze a couple of the lime wedges over the tacos and serve the rest on the side.

Salsa Roja

– 2 plum tomatoes
– 10
– 1
– 1⁄2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
– 1⁄8 teaspoon cumin seeds
– 5 garlic cloves, skins on
– 1 1⁄2 teaspoons kosher salt
– 1 tablespoon sugar
– 1 tablespoon cider vinegar

Preheat the broiler. Roast the tomatoes on a baking sheet under the broiler until blackened in spots, about 7 minutes. Turn them over and continue to blacken, about another 7 minutes. Remove from the broiler and set aside to cool at room temperature. Once they are cool enough to handle, peel the tomatoes and discard the skins.

Remove the stems from the guajillo and chipotle chiles and tear them open. Shake out and discard
the seeds. Remove and discard the veins.

Set a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the oregano and cumin seeds and toast briefly, shaking the pan, until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Remove from the heat, transfer to a spice grinder, and grind to a fine powder.

Reheat the skillet over medium heat. Toast the guajillo and chipotle chiles, turning them from time to time until you see the first wisp of smoke, about 45 seconds.

Remove pan from heat, and transfer the chiles to a bowl. Cover them with hot tap water and place a heavy plate over the chiles to keep them submerged. Set aside to soak for 30 minutes.

Add the garlic cloves to the skillet and roast, turning them from time to time until softened slightly and blackened in spots, about 6 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the garlic from the skillet, and set aside to cool at room temperature. Once they are cool enough to handle, peel the garlic cloves and discard the skins.

Drain the soaked chiles and discard the liquid. Place them in a blender along with the ground spices and roasted garlic, the salt, sugar, cider vinegar, and ¼ cup water. Puree on high speed until completely smooth, working in batches if necessary. Set up a medium-mesh sieve over a bowl and pass the puree through the strainer. Transfer to a container or refrigerate until ready to use. The salsa will keep for up to 3 days.

Corn Tortillas
Makes 12 tortillas

– 1 pound fresh masa, or 1 1⁄2 cups kneaded with 1 cup water

Equipment: Tortilla press*

*I use a 7-inch cast-iron press, which should be easy to find for less than $20. Note that cast-iron can rust if not properly cared for; keep it dry, and lightly rub it with oil if you are storing the press for a long time without regular use.

Inspect the dough: Whether you’re using fresh masa or rehydrated masa harina, you want the texture to be as soft and moist as possible without sticking to your hands. If the dough develops small cracks when squeezed, it is too dry and needs more moisture. To correct this, knead water into the dough in 1 tablespoon increments until it becomes malleable and forms into a ball. Cover the masa with a damp towel.

Prepare the equipment: Set up a double griddle or two cast-iron pans over two burners. Heat one side of the griddle (or one pan) over low-medium heat and the other over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes.

Cut two squares of medium-heavy plastic to fit the press (a freezer bag works nicely). Open the tortilla press and place one square on the bottom plate and the other on the top plate, making sure the plastic does not wrinkle.

Make a test tortilla: Grab a small handful of the masa and roll it into a sphere about the size of a golf ball. Gently flatten it into a rough disk with your fingers.

Position the tortilla press with the pressure handle on the side of your body that you favor—if you’re right-handed, the handle should be on the right. Open the press, keeping the plastic squares on each plate. Center the disk of masa on the bottom plate. Close the top plate, ensuring that the second piece of plastic lands squarely on top of the dough. Fold the handle and apply even pressure. Fold back the handle and open the press. Peel the top plastic from the tortilla. The tortilla should be 5 inches in diameter and about 1⁄ 8 inch thick.

Pick up the bottom plastic square with the tortilla stuck to it. If you’re right-handed, pick it up with your left hand; if you’re left-handed, pick it up with your right. Flip the tortilla over onto your empty palm; the upper edge should run along the tops of your index and middle fingers. Peel off the plastic.

Cook the tortilla: Position yourself over the cooler end of the griddle, with the tortilla draped over your palm and the top of your hand parallel to the hot surface. Bring the edge of the tortilla to the griddle and very quickly slide your hand out from under it; the tortilla should stick right away to the surface. If you’re too slow, the tortilla will fold and cook unevenly.

Cook for 15 seconds. The tortilla will begin to change color after 10 seconds. Using a metal spatula or your fingers, flip it onto the hotter side of the griddle and cook for 30 seconds. Flip the tortilla again, leaving it on the hotter side and cook for another 10 seconds before flipping a final time. Cook for an additional 10 seconds. When the tortilla is done, its edges will begin to release from the griddle and it may inflate slightly.

Taste-test your tortilla: If the dough is too dry, the texture will be heavy and the edges will begin to crack. If needed, gradually add water to the remaining dough in 1 teaspoon increments until it is moist and malleable.

Once you’re happy with the texture, divide the remaining dough into 12 equal balls and repeat the process of pressing and griddling the tortillas. Store the cooked tortillas in an insulated container so that they retain their heat until ready to serve.

Flour Tortillas
Makes 12 tortillas

4 cups all-purpose flour, more as needed
1⁄2 cup lard
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Make the dough: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, lard, and salt and mix on low speed until mealy, about 2 minutes. Add 1 cup of water and continue mi until the dough just comes together, about another minute. Transfer the dough to a smooth work surface and knead gently, being careful to not overwork it—you want the dough smooth and elastic. Cover the dough with a damp towel and let rest for 10 minutes.

Prepare the equipment: Set up a double griddle or 2 cast-iron pans over two burners. Heat one side of the griddle (or one pan) over low-medium heat and the other over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes.

Make a test tortilla: Grab a handful of the dough and roll it into a sphere about the size of a golf ball, setting the rest aside beneath the towel. Using a rolling pin, roll out the ball of dough into a 6-inch round. You may need to flour the surface to keep the tortilla from sticking. (If the tortilla is too sticky, the dough is too wet; knead in some additional flour, a little at a time, until the dough is workable.)

Cook the tortilla: Position yourself over the cooler end of the griddle, with the tortilla draped over your palm and the top of your hand parallel to the hot surface. Bring the edge of the tortilla to the griddle and very quickly slide your hand out from under it; the tortilla should stick right away to the surface. If you’re too slow, the tortilla will fold and cook unevenly.

Cook for 15 seconds. The tortilla will slightly change color after 10 seconds. Using a metal spatula or your fingers, flip it onto the hotter side of the griddle and cook for 30 seconds. Flip it once again, leaving it on the hotter side and cook for another 10 seconds before flipping a final time. Cook for an additional 10 seconds. When the tortilla is done, its edges will begin to release from the griddle and it may inflate slightly.

Taste-test your tortilla: If the dough is too dry, the texture will be heavy and the edges will begin to crack. If needed, gradually add water to the dough in 1 teaspoon increments until it is moist and malleable. Once you’re happy with the texture, divide the remaining dough into 12 equal balls and repeat the process of rolling out the tortillas and griddling them one by one. Store the cooked tortillas in an insulated container so that they retain their heat until ready to serve.

Recipe reprinted from by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman. Copyright ©2015 by Empellon Holdings LLC. Photos by Evan Sung.


About Alex and Jordana
:

AlexStupak

Alex Stupak earned recognition as one of the world’s most innovative pastry chefs while leading teams at progressive cuisine icons Clio, Alinea, and wd-50. He then left that world to cook Mexican food, a cuisine that captured his head and his heart. His restaurant Empellón Cocina earned him a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant in the country, and Food & Wine magazine named him a Best New Chef in 2013.

JRothman2
Jordana Rothman is a veteran of Time Out New York, where she was the Food and Drink editor for six years. She’s a respected member of the national food writing community and a frequent contributor to print and digital publications such as Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, New York Magazine, Cherry Bombe, MadFeed, Grub Street and Conde Nast Traveler.

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