“Its allowing us to do a lot of very technical things, which I love to do, and it kind of keeps me sharp. That’s why we’re always coming up with specials,” says Aaron J. Perez, explaining the differences between operating from a food truck versus his new brick-and-mortar spot Vaka Burger Express, which made its debut in a corner of Ramirez Beverage Center in Boyle Heights a little over a month ago. The new menu is a mix of Perez’s greatest hits (including the classic O.G. Burger with sharp cheddar and Russian dressing and the arugula-topped Truffle Burger), popular specials from the truck that were too intricate to be offered daily, and a few brand-new items.
One of the highlights from the new menu is El Porky, a beef burger layered with hefty slices of pork belly that Perez is curing himself plus provolone cheese, house-made barbeque sauce, and onions that he braises in a French soup stock for six hours. There’s also a barbecue brisket sandwich, a regular special, made with meat that’s brined for four days and made tender by 10 hours of cooking—the cole slaw that he piles on is a nod to the the one his mom used to add to the tacos Perez ate growing up. There’s even duck confit sandwich, called the Pato Loco, served on Texas Toast and made crunchy with duck chicharrons.
As a concession to regulars who’ve been requesting/begging for an egg-topped burger since Vaka’s earliest days, the chef is now serving the Bae Burger. The playful name isn’t a reference to the colloquial term but actually the initials of the burger’s main components: bacon jam, avocado and a yolky egg, an addition that Perez resisted until now.
“That was one of those things where since we started with the pop ups and since we were in Glassell Park, people were like, ‘Put and egg on a burger, put an egg on a burger,’ but I said, ‘Everybody’s doing it.’ you know? We finally gave in and it’s been a good response,” says Perez.
“It’s been a big hit,” agrees Esmeralda Y. Perez, the chef’s business partner and wife.
Other items, like the beer-battered tempura Maui Rings, VB Wangs, Truffle Mac, and Bread Pudding with salted butterscotch are customer favorites that couldn’t be offered on a consistent basis on the truck. Vegetarian options, from a mushroom grilled cheese to substituting portobello mushrooms on any burger, as well as a kid burger are also available.
One major thing that has stayed consistent is Perez and Sanchez’s dedication to using organic meat and produce—the beef is grass-fed, the chicken is from Mary’s Farms, and the pork is from Cook Pigs Ranch, a heritage pig farm. Though this drives up prices (the burgers range between $11 and $14), the two owners are unwilling to compromise on this practice, and they admit that its caused tension with some in the working-class neighborhood who say that Vaka Burger Express is too expensive for residents.
“Of course you have the people who want to tell us ‘How dare you come into the community and sell a $10 burger,’ but I want to say maybe two percent of the community is responding that way. The rest is excited,” says Esmeralda. “We have people from our generation to the new generation to the old generation…and they say, ‘Thank you for bringing quality food to Boyle Heights.'”
“I’m so happy with the quality we have here. We’re very hands on, which is why we have so many followers. We speak to our customers and let them know—chef comes out and shows his face and lets everyone know that we’re here for the community. Chef wants to bring the community good food, real food,” says Vaka sous chef Chris Carrillo.
Perez, a Boyle Heights native, says he refuses to serve food he wouldn’t eat himself and insists that considering its caliber and origins, his food is actually fairly priced. He also says it feels good to put his first permanent restaurant in the eastside neighborhood.
“I wanted to stay true and, at least, put the first [Vaka Burger] here because it gives people a chance, if they choose, to eat good quality versus having to go downtown or to the Westside to get the same quality,” he says. “Plus, I’m born and raised in Boyle Heights, and I wanted to do something good—what I feel is positive.”
This location will be the first of many if the couple has it their way. They’re currently in talks to bring their brand to stadiums, airports, and amusement parks nationwide. They’ve also recently secured a spot at The Knotted Apron in Whittier, where they’ll be hosting private catered events. The first is planned for September 12.
“When people ask what we owe our success to,” says Esmeralda. “Really, it’s that Aaron and I just go for it.”