A week and a half before the restaurant’s grand opening, it’s a busy Tuesday morning at La Mesa’s Casa Gabriella. A large box of new chairs from the restaurant is quickly filling the dining room. Upstairs, there’s a large, colorful portrait of the restaurant’s chef and namesake, Gabriela Lopez, awaiting the finishing touches.
When the painting is complete, it overlooks a dining room set between two large angel wings featuring sketches of people and symbols that have special meaning to Lopez. is a bold attempt, but Chef Gabby (who helmed La Dona at Ocean Beach) is warm, humble, and graceful.
She’s the kind of person you’ve known for years after just chatting for a few minutes. So it makes perfect sense that the heart and soul of the restaurant is smiling at diners. “They will feel happy.”
When Korn Restaurant Group offered Lopez the opportunity to run the eponymous executive chef at Casa Gabriela in La Mesa, she made the difficult decision to leave La Dona.
That menu is full of her family’s recipes, but she was ready for the next chapter. different presentations in different ways,” she says. The cuisine is inspired by Baja’s seafood and her family roots in Guadalajara.
One of the dishes uses her grandmother’s Mexican lentils, served with local fish wrapped in banana leaves. Another is mom’s favorite salmon dish, made with honey, ancho chiles, and coriander. She also brings back La Dona’s popular churros and her grandmother’s ranchero her steak and shrimp burrito sauté. “It’s going to be a completely different burrito!” she teases.
Also on the menu are lobster and black bean, chicken tinga, black sesame empanadas and an elaborate stew of stone pot molcajete, chorizo, grilled vegetables, carne asada, and achiote chicken skewers like my father used to make.
As Lopez peruses the menu, she pauses at favorite items like jalapeño and white corn lasagna, before interrupting: “I think this will blow people’s minds!” and “You will love this!”
Growing up in Tijuana, Lopez saw his mother and grandmother busy in the kitchen and instinctively knew he wanted to be a chef. She got pregnant with her first child at the age of 17, but instead of putting her plans on hold, she cleaned her house during the day and attended cooking school at night.
She always had boundless energy and could get by with just a few hours of sleep to make sure her clients were happy, the kids were fed, and the house was clean. cleaning clients began asking Lopez to cater their parties when they learned she was studying to be a chef. Those who attended these parties were so impressed with her cooking that they hired Lopez to cater for large gatherings and soon she was able to start her own catering business. .
In early 2020, Social Syndicate (Wonderland, The Rabbit Hole, OB Surf Lodge) welcomed her as Executive Chef at La Doña. “without it [Social Syndicate’s] Please help me, I probably won’t be here,” she says. “I am forever grateful for what they have done for me.”
Undaunted when the pandemic hit, Lopez put everything on the menu, including family recipes like her great-grandmother’s famous biria. It was the perfect place for
Lopez was sure people would love her food, but was surprised at how much they loved it. says. She said, “She cried for days when she went out on the patio and saw the restaurant full. It’s so fulfilling.”
Now, with Casa Gabriella opening this week, she feels the same excitement about her new venture. Each night she visits her Facebook page at the restaurant to answer questions about her cuisine and thank her people for their support. “I like to engage with people because that’s how they get to know you,” she says.
Among all the positive comments, there was one that struck her heart: La Mesa doesn’t need more Mexican restaurants. She says she met a local the other day and mentioned her negative comments. “If you cook with all your heart, you will prove to them that you deserve to be here,” the woman told her.
“I hope everyone gives me a chance,” Lopez says.