Chef Amar Santana opens Vaca restaurant

Opening a restaurant is a lot like being pregnant with no idea when the delivery date will be. As much as you plan and schedule, the restaurant gestation period can be frustratingly delayed.

In the case of Chef Amar Santana’s second restaurant – Vaca – I’m not sure who was more frustrated – the chef or us, his devoted fans. While his restaurant in Laguna Beach, Broadway by Amar Santana, has won the praise of thousands, Chef has been eager to get started on a different concept entirely – Spanish (‘Spain’ Spanish, that is) from top to bottom. He hoped for a September opening, but faced usual construction delays along the way. Last night, though, it was a jubilant evening for one and all as Amar and business partner Ahmed Labbate hosted two back-to-back private parties at the new Vaca restaurant.

Ahmed Labatte and Chef Amar Santana

Vaca (uhmm, that means “cow” in Spanish), is just a stone’s throw from where Amar began his Orange County chefery with Charlie Palmer’s restaurant at South Coast Plaza. Vaca sits opposite of the plaza itself, and is the point of the triangle between South Coast Repertory and the Westin Hotel. Without outside signage yet in place, I wandered around the complex, even doing my own theatrical performance of Dan Akroyd in Trading Places as I peered sadly through the back door of the restaurant, hoping for just one’s person’s attention to LET ME IN. At last finding my way to the formal entry, I was greeted with a cacophony of jubilant buzz.

Diane Armitage and Chef Amar Santana at Vaca

Vaca is as tall and narrow as an upright boot box, and the team has made the most of the crazy height with a front bar whose shelves stack themselves nearly all the way to the ceiling. Broadway’s popular Mixologist, Michael, was there to greet me with a bear hug, and he’s as excited about the new lineup of cocktails as Chef is about his racks of aging beef. Of course, you can order just about any cocktail you please, but the staples of the menu feature Spanish gins, sherries, and Vermut de Grifo, a staple in Spanish bars made in-house from more than 20 botanicals.

For the party, the team is serving up buffet style appetizers and paellas and, oh, is this a treat. We pick away at tender Spanish octopus (Pulpo a la Gellega), slices of filet mignon sourced from Aspen Ridge Farms in Colorado, Seafood Paella and Fideau, a toasted noodle paella blackened with squid ink and tossed with calamari, scallions, and toasted Marcona almonds.

Seafood Paella at Vaca by Chef Amar Santana

Everyone is so danged happy.

Ahmed sits to chat briefly, clearly relieved that they’re motoring down the home stretch to a Dec. 26th Vaca restaurant opening. Amar is roaming the building, grinning from ear to ear. He spent months in Spain last winter in research mode. He cobbled together more than 100 recipes before settling on the 37 that finally appear in print  (which doesn’t include all the cheeses, cured meats and sausages, and 14 meat, chicken and fish dishes that he’s comprised preparations and individual sauces for). But even with the blood, sweat and tears he’s poured into the brand concept and menu, Chef Amar is proudest of the massive dry storage racks that house hundreds of pounds of aging beef, pork and lamb. The glass-enclosed racks are almost intimidating as they stand sentry next to the large, open kitchen.

This is what Spain is all about right here,” he says to me with a grand gesture to the natal unit housing his “babies,” most of which is naturally organic Angus beef from Aspen. He stoops to check in on them (and probably sings them lullabies after hours).

“I’m on a mission to show people what beef and pork can be,” he says with his trademark grin. “At Broadway, we do more of a refined collaboration of proteins and starches … here at Vaca, it’s more rustic, authentic craziness.”

From what I see at this pre-pre-opening party, craziness is going to suit Chef Amar’s fans just fine.

Here’s your first peek at the Vaca menu:

Chef Amar Santana's Vaca menu

Get Laguna's Restaurant Updates!