It’s a busy Tuesday morning at Casa Gabriela in La Mesa, a week and a half before the restaurant’s grand opening. Large boxes holding the restaurant’s new chairs are quickly filling up the dining room. Upstairs, there’s a large, colorful portrait of the restaurant’s chef and namesake, Gabriela Lopez, awaiting its final touches.
When the painting is finished, it will be overlooking the dining room, placed between two large angel wings that feature sketches of people and symbols that hold special meaning to Lopez. It’s a bold move for a chef’s portrait to be featured so prominently in a restaurant, but chef Gaby (who helmed La Doña in Ocean Beach), is warm, humble and gracious.
She’s the kind of person you feel like you’ve known for years after a few minutes of chatting. So it makes total sense that the restaurant’s heart and soul would be smiling over diners. “This place is going to have so much love,” she says. “They’re going to feel happy.”
When the Cohn Restaurant Group offered Lopez the chance to be executive chef and namesake of Casa Gabriela in La Mesa, in the former space for BO-beau kitchen + garden, she made the hard decision to leave La Doña.
Though its menu is full of her family’s recipes, she was ready for the next chapter. She’ll be bringing over some items from La Doña, like the birria, “but in different ways, different presentations,” she says. The food will be inspired by Baja seafood and her family’s roots in Guadalajara.
One dish will feature her grandmother’s Mexican lentils, served with local fish wrapped in a banana leaf. Another will be her mom’s favorite salmon dish, made with honey, ancho chilies and cilantro. She’s also bringing over La Doña’s popular churros and her grandmother’s ranchero steak and sauteed shrimp burrito. “It will be a completely different burrito!” she teases.
Also on the menu will be empanadas—lobster and black bean, chicken tinga, and black sesame—and a stone pot molcajete like her dad used to make, an elaborate stew of chorizo, grilled vegetables, carne asada and skewers of achiote chicken.
As Lopez goes through the menu, she pauses at her favorite items, like the jalapeno and white corn lasagna, punctuating her descriptions with, “This one I think is going to blow people’s minds!” and “You’re going to love this one!”
Growing up in Tijuana, watching her mother and grandmother bustle around the kitchen, Lopez knew instinctively that she wanted to be a chef. She became pregnant with her first child at 17, but instead of putting her plans on hold, she cleaned houses during the day and went to culinary school at night.
She’s always had boundless energy, able to get by on a few hours of sleep to make sure her clients were happy, her children fed, and her home spotless. When her house cleaning clients learned that she was studying to be a chef, they started asking Lopez to cater parties. The people who attended those parties were so impressed by the food, they hired Lopez to cater larger gatherings, and soon she was able to start her own catering business.
In early 2020, Social Syndicate (Wonderland, The Rabbit Hole, OB Surf Lodge) brought her in as executive chef of La Doña. “Without [Social Syndicate’s] help, I probably wouldn’t be here,” she says. “I’m always going to be grateful to them for what they did for me.”
When the pandemic hit, Lopez was undeterred—she’d put everything into the menu, including family recipes like her great-grandmother’s famous birria. And, with its big open windows and outdoor seating, it was the perfect pandemic-friendly spot.
Lopez was confident people would love her food, but was surprised by how much they loved it. “I had lines of people. It was crazy,” she says. “I cried so many days when I walked onto the patio and saw the restaurant packed. It makes me feel very accomplished.”
Now, with Casa Gabriela opening this week, she’s feeling that same excitement for her new venture. Each night, she takes to the restaurant’s Facebook page to answer questions about the food and thank people for their support. “I want to engage with people because that’s how they get to know you,” she says.
Amid all the positive comments was one that got to her, saying that La Mesa didn’t need more Mexican restaurants. She says she met a local the other day and mentioned the dismissive comment. “If you cook with your heart,” the woman told her, “you’re going to prove to them that you deserve to be here.”
“I hope everybody will give me an opportunity,” Lopez says.