In San Clemente, where spindrift dances through the air and the sun casts a golden, coastal glow, restaurants invariably aim for casual, beachy approachability. But Gema is more serious, a restaurant with ambition and an identity. Both are rooted in the artful interpretation of Mexican gastronomy.
The dining room is handsome and inviting, framed with exposed wood beams, tanned leathers, blush pinks, and delicate swaths of dusty greens. It looks like a place you might find in Mexico City’s La Condesa neighborhood. That, of course, is by design.
Owner Sarah Goldman and chef Juan Pablo Cruz worked to create a restaurant that honors the kaleidoscopic breadth of Mexican cooking while allowing for modern, playful interpretations of ingredients and dishes both familiar and unfamiliar.
At the bar, mezcal flows and Mexican wines are ever-present. But you can also opt for the fresh-pressed aguas frescas (pineapple-yuzu on a recent spring night) made with seasonal ingredients that change daily.
Lengua de res will grab your attention with its impossibly tender slices of beef tongue in a shallow pool of serrano-laced salsa finished with cubes of avocado and a few greens. So too will the camarónes flameados: grasshopper crema–darkened shrimp with charred heirloom tomatoes, corn croutons, and macadamia dust.
Gema’s chile relleno is a visual star. This is a nontraditional preparation, coated in hazelnut flour, stuffed with cheese and huitlacoche, and topped with a fried quail egg. You’ll miss the traditional egg batter’s satisfying crunch, but the hazelnut flour amplifies the huitlacoche’s inherent fungi funk.
Entrées are typically hearty. Birria de res pairs guajillo chile–glazed short rib with a fluffy corn cake and onion confit. Mole con pato drapes an inky black mole negro over slices of rosy duck and fennel puree. Substantial and flavorful house-made tortillas accompany many entrées.
The kitchen’s rendition of capirotada, a bread pudding of crusty bolillo, piloncillo syrup, queso fresco, and pistachio ice cream, is an admirable finale.
Best dishes at Gema
Lengua de res, camarónes flameados, chile relleno, birria de res, mole con pato, capirotada
First courses, $15–$24; entrées, $32–$45; desserts, $8–$14
110 S. El Camino Real. Closed Sundays and Mondays.