To a visitor walking along El Camino Real in San Clemente’s downtown area, Gema’s outdoor appearance may not inhibit a second thought.
With a white and simplistic exterior, in line with the city’s preeminent Spanish Colonial Revival architectural style, passersby can often overlook what’s in store inside.
But upon taking a step through the colossal front door, the high-end Mexican restaurant named “Restaurant of the Year” by Orange Coast Magazine features plenty of surprises.
Owner Sarah Resendiz opened Gema (pronounced hema) in summer 2022 after her partnership in owning Tamarindo fell through, resulting in the former restaurant’s closure at 110 S. El Camino Real—where Gema sits now.
Resendiz described her former venture as more of a Mexican restaurant similar to others nearby.
After theorizing how to change her approach and collaborating with executive chef Juan Pablo Cruz, Resendiz’s atypical thinking resulted in winning a distinction that provided a “wonderful” feeling.
“It’s nice to be recognized because we’re definitely doing something more out of the box than a lot of restaurants in town and in general in Orange County,” she said. “It was a nice accolade, to be recognized for all the hard work everyone’s been putting in.”
Gema offers an elevated menu dotted with recipes and ingredients that hail from across Mexico, served in the form of first, second, and main courses. For libations, Cruz said they try to source as many liquors, primary mezcal and tequila, as possible from south of the border as well.
Cruz has full creative control of what Gema provides without many limits, which requires significant trust and support, Resendiz acknowledged. But her all-in involvement and constant presence at the restaurant make cooperation between the two heads easier and possible.
The menu changes each season to keep up with what ingredients are fresh and at their highest quality. However, the dates aren’t set in stone, according to Resendiz, as Gema tries to keep its current menu in place until it doesn’t make sense to do so anymore.
Cruz said that the menu process is a lot of work.
“Right now, we’re getting ready for the spring menu,” he said. “So, we try to find out what is local, that (people) can bring me with the same quality whether (it’s) from Mexico or around here.”
Regardless, everything must mesh with Gema’s baseline approach to food and gastronomy.
He added that the restaurant has the respect of other local places because the owners are all aware of the difficulties and risks that come with operating uniquely.
Resendiz remarked that first-time visitors come in and are confused when they don’t see chips and salsa around.
“In the beginning, every customer that we had in here (faced) a learning experience,” she said, adding, “It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort, which we’re all willing to do here, but that’s a risky move to commit to teaching everybody … about what they’re actually eating.”
Most patrons come in from Los Angeles, San Diego and other areas far away from San Clemente to try Gema as part of their foodie nature, but those with less experience often have significantly more questions to ask.
Resendiz, a San Clemente resident and parent, said restaurant staff puts effort into assuring customers that their food isn’t a fusion with another culture, but rather a representation of the heights Mexican food can reach with thoughtfulness and execution.
“We’re beginning to show everybody that, like, no, this is real, true Mexican food,” she said. “It’s very common in Mexico. It’s not the food that we’ve been exposed to here, but 100% true Mexican food.”
While Gema necessitates a serious approach, Cruz said that he and his staff love what they do, and they have room for creativity. A self-described perfectionist, he wants people to be happy and have fun, he added.
“I try to keep learning and have some (different) experience in general and working on menus,” said Cruz. “It’s all about that. Like I said, there’s no limits.”
Given that they all enjoy their jobs, he continued, they understand the commitment necessary to sustain the restaurant’s success. Even with limited hours in comparison to other restaurants, people are still working and preparing from early in the morning to make Gema the best it can be—without actively seeking rewards and recognition.
According to Cruz, since Orange Coast Magazine announced Gema as the Restaurant of the Year in late March, nothing has changed.
“The only thing that changed, in general, for the restaurant is that (the staff) feels, right now, proud about themselves,” he said.
After joining what was a project in its infant stages last summer, and potentially questioning the leadership or direction, they have validation that what they’re doing is working.
Thinking toward the future, Cruz knows that having the support of San Clemente residents is crucial.
The patronage of people outside the city and South Orange County has served as a boost, but it mostly happens towards the weekends when people have more time to travel. Tuesdays and Wednesdays can be painfully slow.
Cruz said their main goal is to maintain stability before increasing Gema’s presence step by step.
Resendiz added that once locals start coming in more, they will see how the restaurant operates differently.
“Even if we have people outside and tables available, if it’s not going to work for the patrons inside the restaurant, we won’t over-seat the restaurant,” she said. “I think that’s something really rare in town.”
She added that people will also notice a high-end experience meshed with the feeling of community between them and the staff. It has already happened to an extent with a few South County residents.
“We know what they like to drink, we know what they like to eat, we know their names and I think that coming into town is really special,” said Resendiz. “Over time, people will start to realize that we are invested in the town, and we live here. Our kids go to school here.”
When more locals do start to come in, she believes that they’ll come to love what Gema has to offer.
She understands that people can be nervous, and that what they order might not look like it always has at other places, Resendiz said, but she encourages people to be open-minded.
“It’s not meant to be one of the places where it’s like, ‘Can you eat the hottest chili? Can you eat a bug?’ ” she said. “We have grasshoppers here and these other insects or rare delicacies from Mexico (where) everybody’s like, ‘Isn’t that mold?’ and you’re like, ‘Yeah, it is, and it’s amazing and delicious and it’s not meant to shock you.’ ”
Just try the food, Resendiz said, and let it do its thing.