Our appetite for Mexican food is bottomless. New players debut at a fierce pace: I count two or three monthly, and that doesn’t include chains, trucks, and tiny taquerias. They know what we love—thick crispy chips, dripping birria, vivacious salsas, and mountains of guacamole. San Clemente’s Gema offers none of those, yet it’s the most ambitious Mexican arrival we’ve seen in months, maybe years.
Open to little fanfare last summer, the innovative dinner house features the singular Mexican gastronomy of Executive Chef Juan Pablo Cruz. His Mexico City culinary credit and five-star background inspired owner Sarah Resendiz to go all-in on their shared vision for elevating Mexican foodways to new heights. Cruz’s refined dishes and Resendiz’s polished hospitality make Gema ripe for picking as a foodie darling.
The best strategy for a first visit is to order a beguiling cocktail, say the La Basilica. Unexpectedly refreshing and floral for a mezcal drink, it’s the sustenance you’ll need to wade through a menu heavy with unfamiliar dishes and unknown ingredients. Prepare to pose a lot of questions to patient staffers who, thankfully, know it all. Servers are equally conversant on the inventive mezcal craft cocktails and breakthrough wines from Baja’s hottest Valle de Guadalupe vintners. Soon, an amuse bouche arrives—a pair of crisp tostadas upright in a small bowl, their edges immersed in an exceptional mole rojo, perfect for nibbling. Each dip of the intricate sauce reveals new flavors from the traditional, labor-intensive elixir that I say reveals the soul of this kitchen.
First courses include elevated takes on ceviche, oysters, roasted bone marrow, and grilled shrimp. Ceviche stars fish of the day, with a sweet-hot kick of mandarin habanero, plus a wee kumquat salad and wondrous house-made blue corn tostadas for scooping. Camarones flameados pairs gently grilled shrimp with charred seasonal vegetables (heirloom tomatoes on one visit), corn croutons, fresh sorrel, and chapuline crème. Molletes are snacky and shareable open-faced sandwiches with a blend of squash, bayo beans, tomatoes, and quesillo cheese. In lesser hands, the topping would be muddy; here, it’s lively.
Cruz ensures that flavors remain distinct and uses only ingredients found or grown in Mexico in his scratch kitchen. He marries ingredients brought in from Mexico’s many regions with our local bounty of seasonal, organic produce and proteins. In a nod to clean eating, he uses only avocado oil and extra-virgin olive oil. Such exacting protocols pay off in salads. Herb salad is a tangle of aromatic wild greens and sprouts glossed with a graceful vinaigrette that plays well with queso fresco and spiced sunflower seeds. Durazano salad contrasts delicate bitter greens, house-made hibiscus-infused cheese, and walnuts with blood orange vinaigrette.
Chile relleno is bodacious—a fat, fresh green chile filled with Oaxacan-style cheese and coated with crushed hazelnuts. It’s plated with tomato espuma and crowned with a sunny side up quail egg. Taco al vapor stars a fried croquet of fish and shrimp savory enough to stand up to a soft red corn tortilla, chipotle adobo, and pickled onions. Tlacoyo, another Oaxacan-style small plate, layers earthy mashed beans, string cheese, unctuous birria, and peppery radishes in a cradle of blue corn masa. The menu’s first and second courses offer so much adventure, one could easily build a novel meal without even venturing to the entrees.
The largest plates offer luxurious surf-and-turf plays such as Australian wagyu filet, Alaskan halibut sea bass, and a fearsome 3-pound tomahawk steak that could feed more than three people. It’s slathered with bone marrow butter and includes rich scalloped potatoes and broccoli jazzed with tamarindo adobo. Seasonal halibut al pastor is surely returning next summer—it outperformed the comparatively bland Mexican sea bass. Profoundly savory Prime short rib birria de res is accompanied by corn cakes and onion confit with bright guajillo glaze. Plant-loving diners, rejoice. The Yaquita Pibil packs a fiesta of flavors on one plate—slow-roasted jackfruit adobada, crispy potatoes, zingy escabeche, and tender silky pot beans so satisfying on a cool night.
Only locals will recall this El Camino Real address was once two storefronts, a grocer and a boutique. The conversion is so extensive, there’s no hint of the past in the hip, open-air setting accented with polished light woods. Sightlines are clear from the spiffy sidewalk patio to the small bar on the back wall, with banquettes in between. A primo sound system was frightfully loud on my visits, drowned out only when louder, exuberant parties joined the scene. Patio seats are slightly quieter.
Signature craft cocktails are heavy on mezcal for good reason—Cruz and Resendiz are aficionados of the enigmatic agave spirit. A mezcal library has its own bar alcove off the dining room, where guests are invited to buy and store bottles for savoring with fare paired to match. O.C. is awash in premium tequilas, but Gema takes the clear lead on collecting and exalting small-batch artisan mezcals. The cache is 75 and growing.
Gema won’t stay a hidden gem for long. Cruz’s deeply considered cuisine plus Resendiz’s simpatico hospitality creates a new top tier for Mexican dining in the county’s southernmost territory.
110 South El Camino Real
5 Best Dishes
- Herb salad
- Chile relleno
- Birria de res
- Wagyu filet
- Starters, $14 to $22
- Small plates, $9 to $19
- Large plates, $32 to $138
Look for future mezcal tasting dinners.