Friday, September 6, 2019

Welcome to OC Vaka Burger

Vaka Burger
1705 Flight Way 
Tustin, CA 92782

Nothing gets me quite as pumped as a new burger spot coming to OC. Okay, maybe a week off from work, but you get what I'm saying here, I really love burgers. Especially if that burger concept was really crazy popular somewhere else before they came to OC. That's the case with Vaka Burger, which came across my radar when I saw a review about their glorious burgers when they were serving them to the hungry people of Whittier.

Brad A. Johnson, who also really loves a good burger, wrote in the Orange County Register that the burgers here could be the best he has ever tasted. He has also named Vaka Burger as one of the top ten places for cheap eats in OC. High praise, but I have been burned a few times by some of his recommendations, so I had to check out Vaka Burger for myself.

If you haven't heard, there's a new food hall in the city of Tustin. Located pretty close to the corner of Barranca and Red Hill, Mess Hall is situated right next to three soon to be inhabited office buildings.  The two times I've been here the food hall was filled with plenty of people exploring the 9 stalls. I can only imagine that once these office buildings are filled with hungry workers, Mess Hall is only going to get even busier.

Vaka Burger started out as a popular food truck back in 2013. Two years later they set up shop in a Boyle Heights liquor store, where they grew to cult status. After a disagreement with the liquor store owners, they opened a spot in Whittier, where their iconic rise continued. That location closed as they went back to another liquor store in Boyle Heights. Then, lucky for all of us in OC, they took one of the stalls at Mess Hall and hopefully they will be here for a long while.

As I mentioned earlier, I have visited Mess Hall two times now, both trips at right about 11:30 to try to avoid the lunchtime rush, which I highly advise. Vaka is easily the most popular of all the food purveyors, which also include Slapfish, Big Parm, Sandwich Society, a Greek spot, a chicken sandwich stand called Fowl Play, Fonda Moderna, Saigon Kitchen, a coffee and tea spot, and a full bar. I've tried some of the other food stalls, but will probably review them later. For now, I was all about Vaka Burger.

The Vaka Burger menu features nine burgers, two sandwiches, sides, a salad, and wings. Prices range between $10 to $13 for their burgers and they come ala carte. Sides will set you back $3 to $7. Now that you've got the lay of the land here, let's see our thoughts on this much-hyped burger spot.

Starting things off on visit number one was my dad's pick, the Blu Burger ($13). This burger was right up his alley. It came with some soft blue cheese, mushrooms coated in a balsamic glaze, butter lettuce, and garlic aioli. My dad was in love with this burger. He called this one of the better burgers he has had in OC. He loved the way the blue cheese was present but did not overpower the very rich 6 ounces of grass-fed beef. The burger patty was the star of the show, and the condiments and toppings complimented it awesomely. Definitely a great start to our visit.

I kind of panicked when it was my turn to order at Vaka Burger. I showed up to Mess Hall knowing what I was going to order and then switched it up at the last moment. This El Porky Burger ($13) made me do an about-face when I saw that the menu said it contains two proteins; a hamburger patty and pork belly medallions. I was sold. Also added to the mix were sliced provolone cheese, caramelized onions, and a good amount of barbecue sauce. Definitely, a knife and fork burger, although I did give it a try with my hands at first. I think the barbecue sauce kind of overpowered everything here. It was hard to get an idea of how good the pork and beef were on this. The bread is worth spotlighting here. Even with this being a very messy burger, the bun maintained its structural integrity, while staying soft and pliable. A great accomplishment to whoever provides their buns at Vaka Burger.

My niece Lillie, like most kids, is pretty basic when it comes to the food that they like to eat. She got the Lencho Jr, Burger ($5) from the kid's section of the menu. This cheeseburger featured sharp cheddar cheese and she 86'd the ketchup that usually comes on this. Even though there were no condiments on this, it really showcased the quality of their burgers. The beef is ground nicely, comes out juicy, and is of very high quality. I thought the sharp cheddar was an odd choice for a kid's burger, but no complaints from very picky Lillie, who usually leaves half of her food uneaten, but that was not the case here at Vaka Burger.

Lillie's kid's meal came with fries, which were nice and thin, but kind of unremarkable to me. They were your basic fast-food fries, even though the menu states that they are twice-fried. The lone blemish on our first trip to Vaka Burger was the Dirty Fries ($6) I had ordered. Here they use the same fries as Lillie's meal but top them with feta cheese, Russian dressing, caramelized onions, and garlic aioli to finish them off.  These came out lukewarm at best and were not helped out any by an overabundance of feta cheese, which overwhelmed here. If the menu did not alert me to the fact that there was Russian dressing and garlic aioli included here, I never would have known. Again, this was my only disappointment with visit number one.

Visit number two started out with these Maui Rings ($6). These were the reason that two trips to Vaka were needed. We had these on our first visit, but my pictures of them were unusable. Not really a shame, since it gave me a second chance to have these awesome rings. They are huge and they give you plenty to share with anyone you choose to bring here. The outer portion has a nice crunchy beer batter, which breaks away easily from the large onion underneath when bitten into. I liked the smaller ones a bit better, as they were even extra crunchy. They gave me both housemade ketchup and garlic aioli for dipping sauces, both of which were good. Just wish they had ranch dressing, which I imagine would be even better with these definitely above-average rings. 

I went a little more subdued on this visit to Vaka, with the Truff Burger ($13). This burger featured arugula, sharp white cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, truffle oil, and garlic aioli. I really liked this burger. The truffle was very present, the cheese melted over the patty perfectly, and I could actually taste the garlic aioli on this. A little too much arugula, but it did help to cut the richness of this burger. Truffle lover? Then this one is all you.

Even though we did not have any kids with us on this trip, I had to order the Lechon Jr, ($5). I figured for five dollars, plus you get fries, it's a pretty good deal worth having. This time they gave me sharp white cheddar instead of the yellow sharp cheddar they had put on the earlier kid's burger. Maybe they were out of the yellow. This was a very good burger nonetheless. As you can see from the picture above, there was plenty of cheese on this, the ketchup added a nice and pleasant flavor, and the beef was again first-rate and coked to a delicious medium. Definitely the best bargain at this food hall.

Vaka Burger did not disappoint. It's easy to see why this is the most popular of all the food stalls here at Mess Hall. The burgers are in the upper echelon of the ones I have had in OC. I actually think that I'll include them in my mythical Mount Hamburgermore of OC Burgers, which now includes G Burger, Burger Parlor, Hopdoddy, and now Vaka Burger. The burgers are really excellent, but I do wish they were a little more flexible when it comes to customization when building your perfect burger. Reading their Yelp reviews, that's one of the things that people complain about the most, while the other is price. Which is really silly when you think about it. I went to Wendy's today for lunch, got a large-sized combo, and spent  $12 for a far inferior burger and fries there. I'd gladly pay the extra $8 for the quality of the burger and onion rings at Vaka when I'm near the Tustin area. No issues with the service on either of these two visits. Glad the hype was warranted, and I hope Vaka Burger has a very long tenure in OC.

Out of five outriggers, (because the term vaka is used to describe the multihull seafaring vessels popular in the South Pacific), five being best to zero being worst, Vaka Burger gets 3.5 outriggers. 

Vaka Burger does not have a website, so check out their Yelp page for more information by clicking here:

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