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“VaKA is going places by thinking out of the box,” says Aaron J. Perez, a Boyle Heights native and the chef behind VaKA Burger. The new restaurant pops up a few times a week at Tested L.A., a house-turned-experimental-kitchen in a residential neighborhood in Glassell Park. The concept—gourmet, grassfed burgers accessorized with house-made everything—is certainly new for the area, and the long lines VaKA attracts regularly prove that it’s the right place at the right time with the right food.
The focused menu features only three burgers: The OG, with russian dressing, thick slices of red onion and beef steak tomato, and Tilamook cheddar; The VaKA, a fancy on take on a Western Bacon Cheeseburger, topped with a beer-battered maui onionring, bacon jam, smoky barbeque sauce and muenster cheese; and The Truffle, made with a hefty dose of truffle oil, arugula, fontina cheese, carmelized onions, and roasted garlic aoli. Perez blends three signature cuts of beef to create big, juicy patties and makes all the dressings and sauces from scratch. While undeniably decadent, these well-designed burgers still master a restraint that’s uncommon in today’s burger world—all the components are balanced, so the condiments and add-ons don’t overwhelm the meaty goodness.
Inspired by flavors from his childhood, Ramirez rounds out the menu with a list of “Sides” and “Mas Sides” that seem to have been given the same deliberation as his burgers. There’s the Truffle Mack, creamy with house-made bechamel sauce; and the sweet and spicy VB Wangs, which are easy to devour and shouldn’t be missed. The Maui Rings, served with sriracha ketchup, are some of the best onion rings I’ve ever had—the Old Rasputin beer batter is so light and crispy that I likened it to “savory funnel cake air” on my first bite. Oh, and don’t forget the russian-dressing-and-carmelized-onion-covered Dirty Fries.
For the time being, VaKA Burger will stay on this side of town, continuing to pop up at Tested L.A. and roaming through Glassell Park, Downtown L.A., Boyle Heights, Silver Lake, and Echo Park in their new food truck (you can’t miss it, just look for the black truck with the giant cow on the side). “We want to take VaKA to places that don’t have many local eateries….VaKA believes it’s the product, love, and passion you put in each dish that keeps the fans/customers coming back for more,” says Perez.
Top photos of Chef Perez photo courtesy of VaKA Burger.
Polka has been on my culinary to-do list for a while, but for some reason, I just couldn’t get there. Maybe it the location—the Glassell Park restaurant is hidden in one of those only-in-LA strip malls where parking kerfuffles run rampant, and every other space is a five-minute only job. But, if that’s what’s been holding you back, then park on the street. Polka is worth it.
Polish restaurants are a rare find in Los Angeles. There are only two within the city limits, and this one has been around for a whopping 19 years. The original owners, reportedly the salt of the earth, have gone back to Poland, but a relative took over and has kept up the tradition of simple, hearty dishes with more flavor than fluff.
When you walk into Polka, you’re immediately transported to your great aunt’s house. It’s homey and sweetly decorated with a touch of frill. Plus, everyone gets a big cup of soup to start. It was spinach, cabbage and potato on our visit, with flecks of shredded carrots and a creamy base. Cozy even on a hot summer day, this soup is delectable and heavy on the comfort. Salad came next, but it’s not much to speak of, just some iceberg lettuce with shreds of jicama and carrots. Strangely enough, the dressing was a sweet sesame, which gave it a tinge of Chinese flavor.
Not too far from Verdugo Bar, hiding under a “Bakery #1” sign in a strip mall, is a breakfast and lunch spot that should be packed every day. It’s not, and selfishly I’d like to keep it that way, but I believe in restaurant karma. So, here it goes: Lemon Poppy Seed Kitchen is a small restaurant run by friendly people that specializes in Romanian flatbreads called plachintas—two tortilla-like layers stuffed with feta, dill and scallion or bacon and cheddar, for example. They are divine, scrumptious, lovely, addictive, and served three ways: warm and sliced with a side of sour cream; folded over melted mozzarella, greens, olives and tomatoes; or under two yolky eggs, swiss chard and onions.
And that’s only half of it. Lemon Poppy Kitchen’s menu also covers big, meaty (and vegetarian) sandwiches, a breakfast menu that includes a biscuit sandwich and polenta cakes, a solid pastry case, real coffee and house-made sodas. It’s that place you’ve been looking for…that we’ve all been looking for.
I was invited to attend Taste of the Eastside, which I sadly had to miss last year. The whole shebang took place last Sunday at Barnsdall Park in Los Feliz. I got there right on time, so I was able to try everything relatively unmolested. Here are some of the things I tried. Those up there? Pavlovas with blackberry and lemon meyer preserves from Atwater Village’s Proof Bakery.
Here’s the rest:
Conchinita pibil taco from Yuca’s in Los Feliz. Very tender.
Buffalo-style cauliflower with vegan blue cheese from Mohawk Bend in Echo Park. I hardly missed the chicken.
Cinnamon rolls and red velvet cupcakes from Auntie Em’s in Eagle Rock.They were nice enough to turn over two rolls for me.
I remember when international healthy food crusader Jamie Oliver introduced his Revolution Burger at Patra’s Charbroiled Burgers in Glassell Park earlier this year. Its grass-fed beef and wheat bun caused a bit of a brouhaha in the food world, angering some people in a “where-does-this-Brit-get-off-telling-us-Americans-how-to-eat-a-burger” kind of way.
Just check out the comments on a Serious Eats post on the subject if you don’t believe me. Faced with the prospect of Oliver’s burger makeover, one commenter remarked, “Burgers = unhealthy and American. There’s somethings [sic] sacred about that to me. If it’s not those two things, it ain’t really a burger.”
Luckily, my sense of patriotism is not so inflamed by foreigners tinkering with American dietary staples, and I’m not so set on the burger-as-belly-bomb edict. As a result, the Revolution Burger has actually become part of my repertoire, and I appreciate it as a healthier option when fast food is in order but I still want a little, you know…nutrition.
I’ve been without a kitchen for two months now thanks to a remodel. And, while of course I’m looking forward to a beautiful new space, the process is slow, and our cooking situation is pretty desperate—no stove, no microwave, no sink. We’re down to a fridge and toaster oven, which makes nightly meals a huge hassle. Eating out every night lost its luster after about two weeks, and toasting for two isn’t as glamorous as it sounds.
Enter our culinary savior: Super King Market. The Glassell Park location of this small grocery chain, specializing in ethnic foods (specifically Armenian and Mexican in this locale) has been saving us from a fate of frozen pizzas for a few weeks now. Super King’s service deli is filled with all the fixings for a nightly mezze feast, including a top-notch selection of hard-to-find cheeses—I recommend the pungent and creamy Bulgarian Feta—and olives. I’m also partial to their dips, especially the jajukh (cucumber-yogurt dip), garlic spread and muhammara, a thick and smoky concoction of roasted red peppers, bread crumbs, walnuts, olive oil, and red pepper flakes.
The 2nd Annual Beer Float Showdown, hosted by Food GPS, went off at Verdugo Bar this past Sunday. Admittedly, the whole beer-plus-ice-cream concept was a little baffling at first, but I can now say I love beer floats!
Simmzy’s Cherry Pie (pictured above), the prettiest of the bunch, was my first float of the evening. It was sort of a revelation since when I first heard about the contest, all I could imagine was stout with vanilla ice cream. Simmzy’s opened my mind by using a cherry Lambic called Brouwerij Verhaeghe Kriek, which was on the lighter side, giving it a soda feel. The ice cream was black cherry brown sugar with lots of tart cherry chunks. I took their advice and let the snickerdoodle garnish soak up the beer—surprisingly awesome.