OC Review: Vaca, Costa Mesa

In Spain, the cow is important because that’s where cheese comes from, and it’s always nice to have some cheese when you’re eating ham. But in the hierarchy of the Spanish barnyard, the pig is king. The cow is just a cow, the maker of cheese.

But don’t tell that to chef Amar Santana and partner Ahmed Labbate, whose new Spanish-themed steakhouse has thrown the pecking order of Spain’s animal kingdom into chaos. You come to Vaca to eat steak. Big steaks. And paella.

And tapas, too. There’s a lot going on here. In truth, you could very easily enjoy an incredible meal of nothing but tapas, but you would be missing the whole point of a restaurant whose name means cow in Spanish.

The house specialty is a dry-aged, USDA Prime bone-in ribeye, prominently showcased in the dry-aging locker that’s on display in the center of the dining room, where hulking slabs of meat have been aging for no less than 50 days. The ribeyes vary in size, priced per pound. The chefs fabricate the steaks each night, then waiters convey the range of weights currently available.

“Tonight they start at 2 pounds, 10 ounces,” my waiter tells me, and I immediately start doing the math in my head. Let’s see, that’s roughly 21/2 pounds at $55 per pound … yowza! I turn to look at the display case. The beef looks so beautiful, so gnarled and funky around the edges, perfectly exhibited like precious art in a museum.

When my steak arrives, I can smell the aggressive char from the wood-fired grill. I can also smell its age, that distinctive aroma akin to ripe blue cheese. I reach with my fork for the platter and stab a hunk of meat, dragging it heavily toward my plate. It is an awesome steak.

And there are others, nearly a dozen, of more manageable heft. There are two very different New York strips. One is corn-fed while the other is raised on grass. Both are genuinely superb.

The California-raised Japanese Washimi beef, one of the smallest steaks on the menu at 10 ounces, goes for $68. It, too, is wonderful.

An authentic Japanese A-5 Wagyu ribeye is hedonistically rich, rationed in 3-ounce increments for the price of a Tesla. I order 6 ounces but the waitress screws up my order and brings only 3, which turns out to be a blessing. Shared between two people, it’s a perfectly nice treat. Any more than that might count as attempted suicide.

As soon as you order one of these steaks, you’re going to want to summon Labbate. He’s the consummate host and an impeccable sommelier. The impressive wine list is 100 percent Spanish. Drink whatever Labbate tells you to drink. On different nights I gave him wildly different price ranges, and no matter how much or little I was willing to spend, he always came up with a perfect match.

Spanish paella is one of those dishes that restaurants never get right. Vaca is a rare exception. The rice is deeply stained with saffron and cooked until it almost catches fire. There’s a darkness, a moodiness to the rice that speaks to its soul, to the heart of Spain, and it will haunt you for days afterward.

It’s impossible to enjoy everything about Vaca in merely one visit. I’ve dined here six times already, and I still discover something new each visit. So after you’ve enjoyed the steak and the paella, come back again and turn your attention to the tapas. Incidentally, Santana was present at Vaca only one of my six visits, and even then for only half of that meal. His crew deserves a lot of credit.

One of the greatest joys of Spain is some of the world’s finest hams, several of which are on display here, including three different Iberico hams from black-footed, acorn-eating pigs.

One of the finest tapas on the menu is a petite finger sandwich called a Bikini. It’s an absurdly simple thing made with nothing more than white bread, Iberico ham, truffles and sheep-milk cheese. The amount of flavor per cubic inch is mind-boggling.

Another of Spain’s great cultural treasures is a snack called pan con tomate, which is simply a piece of toast that’s been rubbed with garlic and a ripe tomato. Three humble ingredients demonstrate the staggering power of simplicity.

The hits keep coming: sea urchin slathered on toast with miso butter; braised beef tendon, tripe and tongue stewed with garbanzo beans, so savagely rich and carnal; a beautiful tomato salad with salt-cured Spanish tuna and smoked trout roe, so salty, tangy and sweet all at once.

On my fourth visit, while trying to decide what to order next, I text a photo of the menu to a friend from Seville, Spain. He texts back “canelon!” Had I not queried him, I likely would have skipped the canelon de pollo ahumado (smoked chicken cannelloni), which sounded rather boring but wasn’t.

Once you commit to the tapas, it’s easy to get swept away. One day at lunch, I lean over to ask the woman at the next table if she’s enjoying her foie gras, a dish I had tasted a week prior. Her husband interjects before she can answer: “It’s her second helping! She liked it so much she ordered another round.”

Not everything is perfect. Huevos estrellados is a bowl of overcooked eggs and undercooked potatoes. And the octopus is surprisingly lackluster (the squid is a much better choice). But the only dish I loathe is the carne cruda, or beef tartare. The meat is put through a mechanical grinder, not hand-chopped, and the result is a texture I equate with cat food. It triggers my gag reflex. It’s just awful. And that’s a shame because clearly the meat is very high quality before it’s destroyed.

Another shame: Desserts are mediocre at best. The churros are strangely dense, and the chocolate sauce that comes with them is so offensively bitter that it tastes more like beef stock than chocolate. The tres leches is so dry that it should be called no leche.

Every single one of the desserts needs to go back to the drawing board. That’s an awfully disappointing way to end a meal here.

On the bright side, it means you don’t have to worry about saving room for dessert. Eat all the steak and foie gras and ham that you can possibly muster. Desserts will have to wait for another day.

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

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