LOS ANGELES — “It’s so secret. So many secret things in there. I’ll never tell you.”
This is Jazz Singsanong’s standard response when people ask what she puts in the off-menu Jazz burger at her Thai restaurant, Jitlada. The spicy patty served on leaves of crisp iceberg lettuce in lieu of a bun is sort of like the protein- or animal-style burger at In-N-Out: It’s technically secret, but if you know about it, you order it.
Most of us have the late Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold to thank for discovering Singsanong’s weaponized meat patties. The ground beef is studded with a minefield of fresh and dried hot chiles that sneak up and attack with every other bite. It’s seasoned with lots of palm sugar, but to balance all that sweetness there’s a deep umami funk. It could be courtesy of fish sauce and/or soy sauce, but again, Singsanong will never tell.
Singsanong created the burger for her kids’ school lunches years ago in an attempt to give them something that skewed more American. It’s now a favorite at Jitlada, where you can get one if and only if Singsanong is there — and if she feels like making it.
It’s one of those great L.A. restaurant dishes that I often crave at 2 in the morning, when there’s no conceivable way of getting one. The last time I wanted a Jazz burger, I decided to experiment and make it myself. I ended up testing six iterations of the recipe and going through about 12 pounds of meat.
Once I thought I had nailed it, I headed to Jitlada to make my Jazz burger alongside Singsanong.
On a recent afternoon, we crammed into her tiny Thai Town kitchen, chopped chiles and garlic perfuming and thickening the air, causing my eyes to water and prompting more than one coughing fit. Singsanong, unfazed by the chile clouds around us, darted in and out of her pantry, sloshing a couple of glugs of one sauce into the meat, then adding another. She mixed her patties in that same pantry so I couldn’t see what was going on.
Singsanong whipped her ground beef with other ingredients to create a sort of meat paste, resulting in a patty that was a lot wetter and looser than mine, kind of like a sloppy Joe. When she put it on the grill, she poked at it and moved it around constantly, reforming the patty with her spatula. My burger looked more traditional (the patty held together), and I left it alone on the grill.
I presented the burger to Singsanong and, after a big bite, she noted that it tasted beefier than her version, with a nice punchy flavor.
“Not the Jazz burger, but I love it,” she said. “I’m proud of you.”
I’ll take it.
Jenn’s Jazz Burgers
30 minutes, plus 1 to 3 hours marinating time. Serves 4.
1 pound ground beef (80/20)
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced, peeled fresh ginger
1/2 cup diced white onion
2 1/2 teaspoons white sugar or crushed or grated palm sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
4 tablespoons lower-sodium soy sauce
1 fresh Makrut lime leaf, minced
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 to 8 dried red chiles, stemmed
4 to 8 fresh Thai chiles, seeded if desired, and diced
8 leaves iceberg lettuce, Tomato slices, slivered red onion, sliced green onion, diced Thai chiles and fresh herbs such as Thai basil, cilantro and perilla, for serving
Jazz Burger Sauce (recipe follows)
1. Combine the beef, garlic, ginger, onion, sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, lime leaf, black pepper, dried chiles and fresh chiles in a large mixing bowl and mix until everything is thoroughly combined and the meat becomes paste-like in texture, three to five minutes. Cover and refrigerate for one to three hours.
2. Set up a charcoal grill for direct, high-heat grilling or heat a gas grill to high. (Alternatively, heat a large skillet or grill pan over high heat on a stove.)
3. Divide the meat evenly into four portions and form into 1/2-inch-thick patties. Place on the hot grill grate. Cook until browned and lightly charred on the bottom, about four minutes. Flip the burgers and grill the other side for four minutes for medium-rare or to desired doneness.
4. For each burger, place two leaves of lettuce on a plate, then top with a burger patty. Garnish each with a slice of tomato, some red and green onion, chiles and herbs. Add a drizzle of the burger sauce and serve immediately.
Jenn’s Jazz Burger Sauce
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon yellow mustard
1 tablespoon crushed or grated palm sugar
1 tablespoon lower-sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Mix the mayonnaise, mustard, palm sugar, soy sauce and pepper in a small bowl until thoroughly combined.