Longtime local chef Gaby Lopez opens dream restaurant, Casa Gabriela, in La Mesa

A chef stands near the wall decorations in a restaurant
Gaby Lopez in her new restaurant Casa Gabriela in La Mesa.
(Courtesy of Cohn Restaurant Group)

Lopez partnered with Cohn Restaurant Group to replace the former bo-BEAU space in La Mesa with an elevated Mexican restaurant


Since she learned how to make tortillas and rice in her grandmother’s Tijuana kitchen at 8 years old, Gaby Lopez has been cooking with a passion.

Now in her 40s, the longtime local chef said she’s finally ready to live her dream. In partnership with the Cohn Restaurant Group, Lopez on Thursday opens Casa Gabriela, a “next level” Mexican restaurant, in CRG’s former bo-BEAU Kitchen restaurant space in La Mesa Village.

Casa Gabriela serves dishes that Lopez said she has been developing and honing over the past 20-plus years in San Diego as a private chef, caterer and restaurant chef.

“I’m a humble person. I’ve worked all these years and this is the greatest thing that has happened in my life,” Lopez said of her eponymous restaurant. “I was a mom at 17 and my kids are older now. Having the opportunity to do this in my 40s — I don’t take it lightly. I will work so hard to make La Mesa feel welcome. I want Casa Gabriela to be the most amazing restaurant in San Diego.”

Lopez said everything, from the tortillas and churros to the mole sauce and birria, is made in-house: “One of my biggest things is food made with love, from scratch. I cook simple and very traditional, but it’s elevated.”

Jalapeno-cilantro tempura-fried cauliflower tacos with guajillo aioli and roasted corn relish at Casa Gabriel in La Mesa.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Lopez knew from an early age that she wanted to be a chef, but when she had her first child in her teens, she knew the road to her goal would require many detours. During culinary school she juggled multiple jobs and parenting. Then she worked as a private chef and ran Gaby’s Catering Service before joining the Social Syndicate family of restaurants, where she was a consulting chef for 11 years.

Her last venture with Social Syndicate was La Doña, a 3-year-old Mexican restaurant in Ocean Beach. While she loved working for Social Syndicate, Lopez said the opportunity to be a partner in her own restaurant was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

“I feel like my main thing is I want people to feel like they’re eating in my home,” she said.

The La Reina Mariscos Molcajete for two at Casa Gabriela in La Mesa.
The La Reina Mariscos Molcajete for two, which arrives at the table boiling in a stone mortar, is a house specialty at Casa Gabriela in La Mesa.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Deborah Scott, executive chef and partner in Cohn Restaurant Group, said she loves giving chefs she admires the opportunity to run their own restaurants. Most recently, that was Travis Swikard, who opened the Michelin Bib Gourmand-winning Callie in East Village in June 2021, thanks in part to Scott’s investment. The logo for Casa Gabriela is a heart with wings, which Scott said represents Lopez’s long-awaited dream finally taking wing.

“Gaby has had a hard life and came from a very tough upbringing, but she succeeded and she puts her heart into everything she does. But she can fly now. My biggest joy is to be a part of that,” Scott said.

One of Lopez’s signature dishes at Casa Gabriela is her Guadalajara-style birria tacos, featuring stewed beef and consomé dipping sauce recipes handed down by her grandmother — hence the dish’s name: Birria de la Abuela (the Spanish word for grandmother).

Another Lopez signature is her molcajete feast for two, a mix of seafood, meats, peppers, onions, cheeses, rice, beans and cactus strips that arrives boiling in cheese or other sauces in an oven-heated stone mortar (molcajete in Spanish).

Lopez is also proud of her chicken enchiladas with a Puebla-style mole negro; her traditional Tijuana-style Caesar salad; her house guacamole made with Tajín-spiced chicharrones (pork rinds), pepitas and queso fresco; tempura-fried cauliflower tacos with jalapeño and cilantro; and her chicken tinga empanadas, made with roasted poblano peppers and black sesame seeds.

There are also dishes that blend of American and Mexican flavors, like chicken, salmon and steak dishes and a Brussels sprouts appetizer with candied bacon, toasted pepitas and pomegranate seeds. And for dessert, Lopez has her own churro recipe, made to order with a French pâte à choux pastry dough.

Casa Gabriela

Hours: 3:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays

Where: 8384 La Mesa Blvd., La Mesa

Phone: (619) 337-3445


A mural on the wall inside Casa Gabriela in La Mesa depicts its founding executive chef, Gaby Lopez.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)