Aaron J. Perez, who’ll debut his new Vaka Burger Express takeout counter inside Boyle Heights’ Ramirez Beverage Center on Friday evening, is a classically trained chef who spent time at Rivera and Providence. He’s also a food stylist who’s worked for national magazines and The Food Network. For his burgers, he uses grass-fed, organic California beef—chuck, brisket, and skirt steak that goes through the grinder twice, a process that “kind of solidifies the fat.” There’s no doubt that Vaka Burger, which started as a pop-up and then turned into a popular food truck (now parked and reserved for catering), is a chef-driven concept. But it’s also heavily influenced by what you want to eat when you’re a kid.
“A lot of the menu is based on childhood favorites,” Perez says. “The OG, that would be my spin on the Bob’s Big Boy, that old-school original.”
Perez’s version hits the savory/juicy/crisp/tangy/sweet spot with julienned Romaine lettuce, Russian dressing (featuring housemade pickles), beefsteak tomatoes, sharp cheddar, red onion, and ketchup.
The namesake Vaka, meanwhile, is Perez’s interpretation of the Carl’s Jr. Western Bacon cheeseburger. Yes, there are onion rings on this burger, but these are beer-battered tempura onion rings. Instead of bacon slices, there’s a bacon jam made with rendered fat and beer. Muenster cheese and Perez’s own smoked BBQ sauce complete the whimsical but refined picture.
“Everything is made in-house,” he says. “It’s really a chef burger, something that belongs on a white plate, but it’s takeout.”
The OG, the Vaka, and the Truff with white truffle oil are the three burgers that Vaka Burger Express will offer on its limited menu for open-to-the-public pre-launch events this Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. There will also be fries, dirty fries (with Russian dressing, caramelized onions, garlic aioli, and parsley), and bread pudding available for purchase. Round two of the pre-launch will be on Friday, July 3 and Saturday, July 4 from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., and the menu for those evenings will also include Perez’s popular Maui Rings—those beer-battered onion rings—as a side dish.
When the takeout operation officially opens soon after that in July, guests will also be able to order chicken wings, truffle fries, the El Porky burger with crispy pork belly, the Los Altos burger with herbed goat cheese, and the Pato Loco grilled cheese with duck chicharron and crispy duck confit. Vaka Burger Express will aim for the lunch, dinner, and late-night crowds with its planned 11 a.m.-to-11 p.m. hours seven days a week.
“It’s almost a food desert out here, especially with gourmet food,” say Perez, who grew up in Boyle Heights like multiple generations of his family before him.
There are, of course, some exemplary taco trucks in the neighborhood—the famed Mariscos Jalisco is within walking distance of the Ramirez Beverage Center—but Vaka Burger Express “is a totally unorthodox concept for the area,” Perez says. “And I think that’s what’s good about it. We’re definitely going to attract some attention. I wanted to bring food that I think the neighborhood deserves.”
What Perez is doing includes curing Cooks Pig Ranch heritage pork belly himself and making his own ketchup from scratch.
“It’s a small place, but we’re running it as if it were a Michelin-starred restaurant,” Esmeralda Y. Perez, the chef’s wife and business partner, says as she walks us into the cozy kitchen. “We just realized that there was such a high demand for good quality food, period, in Boyle Heights.”
And with its location inside the Ramirez Beverage Center, Vaka Burger Express is a place where finding a beer or spirit to pair with your gourmet burger shouldn’t be difficult. In fact, there’s an off-menu special known as the “happier meal.” It includes the OG burger and fries, and, of course, the option to buy whatever drinks you feel like taking home.
Vaka Burger Express, 2765 Olympic Blvd., Boyle Heights