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Casa Gabriela looks to lift the Boulevard

“It’s the little things, Ambrose”

“Elevated Mexican” gets wings to fly.
“Elevated Mexican” gets wings to fly.

When I arrived in La Mesa nearly 25 years ago, the odd, triangular lot at the end of the main drag was occupied by a sleepy restaurant with a sleepy name: Village Garden Restaurant & Bakery. The place fit just fine with the Boulevard’s hodge-podge of antique shops and leftovers from the small-town downtown days. And fittingly, it closed in 2008, the same year that La Mesa set about its streetscape improvement project to “revitalize and beautify the downtown area” and “improve its status as a destination.” Soon after, the space reopened as GIO Bistro & Wine Bar, which struggled to hit the right note on the upscale. That gave way to celebrity chef Brian Malarkey’s Gingham in 2011, which closed after some oily rags caught fire and blew up some propane tanks. In stepped the Cohn Restaurant Group for the 2013 opening of BO-beau kitchen + garden, and it seemed the neighborhood had found a fixture.

Place

Casa Gabriela

8384 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa

Well, sort of. The Cohns have stayed, but now they’ve partnered with chef Gabriela Lopez and retooled the place into an “elevated Mexican” joint, situated roughly midway between the extant and perhaps less elevated Por Favor and Mario’s De La Mesa. It’s unlikely that you’ll find a $75 Nebbiolo or Sangiovese from Baja’s Guadalupe Valley on the latter two’s wine lists, let alone an Elote Old Fashioned Mexican cocktail featuring corn liqueur and smoked chili bitters. La Mesa seems ready for the lift: I checked on Thursday about a Saturday reservation, and had to settle for 4 pm — remarkable when you consider the size of the place, with its four distinct dining areas (downstairs, upstairs, bar, and capacious patio, gently united by heart-shaped décor — either flaming or winged.)

Sponsored
Sponsored
Empanadas, elevated

“It’s the little things, Ambrose,” said my wife when she saw the dark dusting of paprika on the tortilla chips that arrived as we looked over the menu. For me, it was the lingering heat of the salsa, which didn’t subside until I’d had a swig of her slushy mango margarita ($10 during the 3:30-5:30 happy hour; the limeade-y draft house margarita was $8). We began by seeing how Chef Gaby (as she’s referred to on the menu) would elevate something humble, like empanadas filled with chicken tinga ($14.95). We were not disappointed: three generous pastries, their crusts light and flaky as any pie and just crisped at the edge, filled with a chicken-cheese stew that offered almost no resistance and just a hint of acidic bite. And all that melty, flaky softness was smartly countered by the crunch of liberally applied roasted sesame seeds. Bigger and better than your basic empanada.

The lively tang on the Enchiladas Marisco Suiza came partly from the pink pickled onions, partly from the tomatillo-jalapeno crema.

The Wife’s Enchiladas Marisco Suiza ($24.50) provided a similar experience: an oversized portion, enlivened by quality ingredients (yielding tortillas, tender scallops, firm shrimp) and tasty touches, most notably, the bold tang of onions soaked in vinegar and spices set against against the gentler effect of the tomatillos in the sauce. But for once, I was convinced I made the better selection, following my server’s advice and ordering the jalapeno and white corn lasagna ($22.50). This was one of the chef’s interpretations, with layers of softened, sliced onions taking the place of pasta ribbons, and a gelatinous corn pudding subbing in for rich, runny ricotta. There were tomatoes, but tiny and whole, and instead of ground meat, slices of poblano peppers. (The blanket of browned cheese, however, remained.) My only regret was eating in from the edges of the cast-iron pan; better to mix it it all up at the outset and let the corny goodness suffuse each bite of everything else.

Not your Nonna’s lasagna, but delicious and suffused with roasty corn flavor.

At one point, The Wife noted that we’d eaten at a couple of the location’s other iterations, but never returned after our initial visit. Casa Gabriela may have lifted us over that particular hump.

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“Elevated Mexican” gets wings to fly.
“Elevated Mexican” gets wings to fly.

When I arrived in La Mesa nearly 25 years ago, the odd, triangular lot at the end of the main drag was occupied by a sleepy restaurant with a sleepy name: Village Garden Restaurant & Bakery. The place fit just fine with the Boulevard’s hodge-podge of antique shops and leftovers from the small-town downtown days. And fittingly, it closed in 2008, the same year that La Mesa set about its streetscape improvement project to “revitalize and beautify the downtown area” and “improve its status as a destination.” Soon after, the space reopened as GIO Bistro & Wine Bar, which struggled to hit the right note on the upscale. That gave way to celebrity chef Brian Malarkey’s Gingham in 2011, which closed after some oily rags caught fire and blew up some propane tanks. In stepped the Cohn Restaurant Group for the 2013 opening of BO-beau kitchen + garden, and it seemed the neighborhood had found a fixture.

Place

Casa Gabriela

8384 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa

Well, sort of. The Cohns have stayed, but now they’ve partnered with chef Gabriela Lopez and retooled the place into an “elevated Mexican” joint, situated roughly midway between the extant and perhaps less elevated Por Favor and Mario’s De La Mesa. It’s unlikely that you’ll find a $75 Nebbiolo or Sangiovese from Baja’s Guadalupe Valley on the latter two’s wine lists, let alone an Elote Old Fashioned Mexican cocktail featuring corn liqueur and smoked chili bitters. La Mesa seems ready for the lift: I checked on Thursday about a Saturday reservation, and had to settle for 4 pm — remarkable when you consider the size of the place, with its four distinct dining areas (downstairs, upstairs, bar, and capacious patio, gently united by heart-shaped décor — either flaming or winged.)

Sponsored
Sponsored
Empanadas, elevated

“It’s the little things, Ambrose,” said my wife when she saw the dark dusting of paprika on the tortilla chips that arrived as we looked over the menu. For me, it was the lingering heat of the salsa, which didn’t subside until I’d had a swig of her slushy mango margarita ($10 during the 3:30-5:30 happy hour; the limeade-y draft house margarita was $8). We began by seeing how Chef Gaby (as she’s referred to on the menu) would elevate something humble, like empanadas filled with chicken tinga ($14.95). We were not disappointed: three generous pastries, their crusts light and flaky as any pie and just crisped at the edge, filled with a chicken-cheese stew that offered almost no resistance and just a hint of acidic bite. And all that melty, flaky softness was smartly countered by the crunch of liberally applied roasted sesame seeds. Bigger and better than your basic empanada.

The lively tang on the Enchiladas Marisco Suiza came partly from the pink pickled onions, partly from the tomatillo-jalapeno crema.

The Wife’s Enchiladas Marisco Suiza ($24.50) provided a similar experience: an oversized portion, enlivened by quality ingredients (yielding tortillas, tender scallops, firm shrimp) and tasty touches, most notably, the bold tang of onions soaked in vinegar and spices set against against the gentler effect of the tomatillos in the sauce. But for once, I was convinced I made the better selection, following my server’s advice and ordering the jalapeno and white corn lasagna ($22.50). This was one of the chef’s interpretations, with layers of softened, sliced onions taking the place of pasta ribbons, and a gelatinous corn pudding subbing in for rich, runny ricotta. There were tomatoes, but tiny and whole, and instead of ground meat, slices of poblano peppers. (The blanket of browned cheese, however, remained.) My only regret was eating in from the edges of the cast-iron pan; better to mix it it all up at the outset and let the corny goodness suffuse each bite of everything else.

Not your Nonna’s lasagna, but delicious and suffused with roasty corn flavor.

At one point, The Wife noted that we’d eaten at a couple of the location’s other iterations, but never returned after our initial visit. Casa Gabriela may have lifted us over that particular hump.

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