Vaca: Amar Santana’s fans score a big win with the chef’s delicious ode to Spain

Seafood paella

Every wide-eyed diner joining me on a first visit to Vaca says “Wow! This is not what I expected.” By now, I know the airy, unfussy space’s intentional lack of grandeur throws them off. It just doesn’t square with the lavish media buzz leading up to Vaca’s lustfully anticipated launch in late December. Even without chef Amar Santana’s 14-episode run on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” Vaca’s team is the one to watch in O.C.

Santana and partner Ahmed Labbate, the power duo behind Laguna Beach’s flourishing Broadway by Amar Santana, double down in Costa Mesa with this exuberant, singular ode to Spain. Spanish pedigrees rule here, as in peerless Jamon Iberico carved by hand, creamy Finca Pascualete cheese, lush bomba rice for paellas, and verdant Mahon gin for cocktails. Santana sidesteps the “eat local” crusade with cheeky confidence.

Thanks to Broadway’s cocktail phenoms Gabrielle Dion and Michael Rooney, Vaca drinks are thrilling and utterly simpatico with the expansive menu of unusual delights. Dion, Santana, and Labbate spent weeks drinking their way through Spain and falling in love with España’s passion for sensational gin and tonics. Vaca Tonic, an upscale gimlet slushy of sorts, is the house signature, leading a robust lineup of gin, sherry, and house-made vermouth libations. Getting lost in the bar’s bounty of uncommon spirits, bitters, tonics, and unique glassware is worth a trip on its own since your tour guides are among the county’s best bartenders.

Dozens of tapas beg to be tried, none of which will be anything like other tapas you’ve had in these parts. Crowd pleasers that vanish in a blur include the chicken croquettes, creamy chicken fritters with a golden crunch; toasty blue cheese-stuffed dates wrapped in serrano ham and speared with spiky picks; a seared nugget of foie gras with vanilla-apple compote; and roasted lamb meatballs garnished with fresh cucumber slices and cool lemony yogurt.

Standout tapas abound and after five visits, I’ve yet to try all of them. My top picks are tomato salad with smoked trout roe and mojama, a wind-dried fish bursting with salty umami; and the beef tartar that’s a cazuela with a single layer of chopped raw beef loosely mixed with marcona almond bits, diced sherry vinegar shallots, and smidgens of cabrales blue cheese, all topped with a lacey veil of frisee.IMG_4023

I won’t reorder the omelet (Tortilla Espanola) with onions, potatoes, and aioli because the chopped potatoes are lost in the mix, or the dainty crustless bikini sandwich triangles of ham and manchego, reeking of truffle-infused olive oil.

Paellas are the perfect shareable dish, a nice complement to a mix of tapas, but are an even tastier partner for the wood-grilled proteins. I still daydream about the savory, carb-heavy vegetable paella and the near-perfect dinner it made with a shared Prime skirt steak. Wood-grilled to an Instagram-ready medium-rare, the juicy steak’s beefy intensity was further boosted by slicing against the grain, making every robust bite a pleasure. Two sauces accompany all steaks, an oddly bashful chimichurri and a boldly complex steak sauce Santana should brand and bottle. Warmed up the next day, the paella’s roasted mushrooms, asparagus, and stock-plumped rice was almost better than the first round, though both servings lacked the cooking time/technique that yield the desirable caramelized brown rice socarrat on the bottom.

Lunch is the sleeper find here: reservations are much easier to get, it offers daytime dishes that include sandwiches, and the entire dinner menu is offered. And lunch’s splendid hamburger is built with ground Prime beef, crispy chorizo, oven-dried tomatoes, and a fresh brioche bun. It’s easily the most savory burger of my 2016.

Tapas include the chicken croquettes, the beef tartar with shallots and frisee, and roasted lamb meatballs. Service leans toward efficient and professional, though the energetic crowds and bustling kitchen and bar seem to allow little time for interactive gaiety with the staff. With such a large variety of plates rotating through, servers need tournament-level Tetris skills to keep the smallish tables tidy. Expect to overhear your neighbors’ comments and see their dishes as they will yours, thanks to bistro-tight seating. Still, every seat is taken by diners happily soaking up the convivial setting, lost in a fog of pleasurable food and drink. When both patios are in full use, it will add more seating and bring the fun outdoors, Barcelona-style. Here’s hoping this is soon.

Santana followers might have been disappointed to see him take the formidable second-place spot in “Top Chef’s” season 13 faceoff.  His groupies were so sure he would win. But you don’t have to watch reality TV to know the true winners on any given day are diners who snag tables at Vaca.

695 Town Center Drive
Costa Mesa

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