It’s not that vegetarians aren’t welcome at Costa Mesa restaurant Vaca. It’s that they may not feel the same unbridled excitement as those who enjoy expertly prepared meat and seafood. The innovative lunch and dinner hot spot owned by former Top Chef
contestant Amar Santana celebrates Spanish cuisine, from Andalusia, Seville, Madrid
, and the Basque region to be precise. The call at lunch is the $28 three-course prix fixe, which changes weekly. Dinner brings an almost paralyzing array of decisions: unparalleled dry-aged rib eye (the restaurant’s name, after all, is Spanish for “cow”), seafood paella, or a collection of tapas such as sea urchin with scrambled eggs, served in the spiky shell with caviar. To accompany it, pick from one of the three drinks on tap: a house vermouth, a red sangria, or a signature gin cocktail named after the restaurant. Tucked between the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and the South Coast Plaza, the restaurant is great for preshow dinner or post–shopping spree lunch. Pro tip: If you’re with a group, request a circular booth; if you’re a pair, go for the heated patio or the bar.