Last year, we are all waiting with bated breath for Vaca to open. Six months ago, the Spanish-inspired restaurant opens amid Chef Amar Santana’s stint on Top Chef, creating even more of a buzz than usual, as the whole of Orange County and beyond is glued to the TV awaiting the outcome. Amar comes in second place and Vaca becomes the talk of the town. After its opening, it is almost impossible to garner a reservation for dinner within a 4-week frame. Even now, I hear it is difficult to secure a table in the evenings especially on a Friday or Saturday night.
I choose lunch for my first visit, with a couple of friends in tow, a few months after opening. The restaurant is flanked between office buildings between Segerstrom Center For The Arts and South Coast Plaza. Step inside and you are greeted by a lively and beautifully vibrant space, encapsulating the bustling atmosphere of restaurants in Spain.
On our initial visit, we start with Pan con Tomate ($6) toasted bread rubbed with garlic, olive oil, and tomato pulp. It is a simple dish I’ve eaten all too many times before, but on this occasion, the bread is a little too wet but decent in flavor.
I am especially excited about Erizos con Huevo ($16) fresh sea urchin scramble eggs, served with miso butter toast. I’m glad to see the uni remains raw and not “cooked” by the hot scramble eggs, as many people have mentioned. I’m looking for that salty umami finish, but alas, the toast is devoid of any miso, resulting in a bland composition. It is a shame because it is aesthetically stunning.
Callos ($9) a delicious stew of braised beef tendon, tripe, tongue with garbanzo beans and pimento is robust with each ingredient melding in unison, yet possessing its own unique texture and chew factor. It is comfort food at its best.
Tomate Y Mojama ($14) wins my heart from the very first visit. It is also a dish I have ordered every time I’m here. It is one of my favorite dishes! This salad of tomatoes and salt cured tuna sits atop lemony yogurt dotted with smoked trout roe and makes my mouth pucker. I order this on subsequent visits but it never quite measures up to the first plate we experience. I mention to the server there is half the amount of yogurt and she immediately brings more.
On another visit, I am here for dinner, a completely different vibe and feel than lunch. Even though no one rushes us, our meal feels frantic. The food arrives at rapid speed … bam bam bam … and we try to keep up with it as best as we can.
Huevos Estrellados ($11) a simple dish of fried potatoes and “broken eggs” is delicious. There are bits of chorizo to give it saltiness, but the egg is overcooked so the yolk isn’t able to run freely, coating everything in its path. It is still worth ordering due to how complex the flavors given the simplicity of ingredients.
Albondigas ($12) is roasted lamb meatballs. Unfortunately, they are too dense, resulting in an all too rubbery texture. This dish comes with lemon yogurt and cucumbers.
Everyone is eager to try Bikini Sandwich ($13) from all the rave reviews it’s been getting, but the little triangle sandwiches of paleta Iberica, manchego, and truffles is dripping with grease. Take a bite and the oil runs down your chin. Must have been an off-night as I hear time and time again it’s to-die-for.
As disappointing as the previous dishes are, Botifarra ($10) blows it out of the park with a succulent grilled pork sausage, served sliced on a bed of white bean puree. It is a comforting satisfaction when you bite into it – salty with the great contrasting textures between skin and sausage. The balsamic reduction takes it up another notch by adding an opulent mouth-feel, while balancing with the acid.
Another must-order is Canelon de Pollo Ahumado ($14) perhaps one of the top five dishes I eat at Vaca. Take a bite of this sinful offering and your eyes will roll back into your head in sheer delight. The smoked chicken cannelloni in foie gras sauce with a sherry reduction is decadent. It is overtly sexy, making you want more, even though it is so rich you really shouldn’t.
Then there is the paellas, and there are many to choose from. We opt for Paella de Mariscos ($42) on this visit. The saffron bomba rice is topped with clams, mussels, shrimp, and octopus, possessing a solid flavor, but is too wet and very salty, even for me. There is no socarrat either, which is a huge disappointment because it is pretty much one of the top reasons why I order paella. (It’s the same with Korean bibimbap or Chinese claypot rice – it’s the crust at the bottom that I’m most excited about.) I do not order this again on future visits.
Although the menu is a hit and miss, there is one thing that remains consistent — the meat! There is an excellent Steak Salad ($18) on the lunch menu, a grilled marinated hangar steak with a perfectly dressed salad of butter lettuce, asparagus, and tomatoes in a merlot vinaigrette. Even when arrives overcooked on one of my visits, it turns out flavorful and remains tender.
We choose Boneless New York Strip 12oz ($44) on another occasion and again, a masterpiece in both execution and flavor. The bottom line is … the steak will never let you down.
After many visits, I’ve decided that I prefer lunch over dinner. It is more relaxed and I don’t feel my meal is being rushed. The entire menu is offered at lunch time PLUS a separate lunch menu which includes a 3-course Express Lunch for $28. It’s a steal! We can take our time and enjoy each course at a leisurely pace.
The Express Lunch menu offers two selections for the first two courses, with dessert to follow. On one visit, the menu comprises a fantastic starter of Green Grape Gazpacho with sheep’s milk yogurt and large poached shrimp. It is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten!
Crisp Duck Confit Leg follows – a very generous portion – accompanied by roasted Brussels sprouts and beets. The duck is fall-off-the-bone tender and honestly, can sell at $28 on its own. Also, the 3-course meal is offered a la carte should one item catch your eye.
Dining at Vaca is best when you can dedicate time to savor the meal. I can’t wait to return for lunch again – very soon!
695 Town Center Dr
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
** there is valet parking as well as validated parking in the structure across the street **