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For Chicatanas and Hazelnut-Crusted Chile Rellenos, Drive to Gema in San Clemente

Hazelnut-crusted chile relleno in tomato espuma topped with quail egg and serrano.

Squeezed between the Mexican food epicenters of L.A. and O.C. to its north and Tijuana and San Diego to its south, what could tiny San Clemente possibly offer to compel drivers scurrying between them to pull over for a bite here?

Survey says…

Gema, which brings this tanned-and-toney beach town the kind of artistic, ingredient-obsessed cuisine one might seek out in the hotter restaurants of La Condesa L.A.’s Arts District.

Gema in San Clemente

Gema, meaning “gem” and pronounced “hema,” soft-opened in July in a rebranding of owner Sarah Resendiz’s restaurant, formerly known as Tamarindo. Juan Pablo Cruz is the executive chef in command of the kitchen now, the son of a Spanish mother and German father variously raised between Southern California, Spain, and Mexico City.

Resendiz, standing in as our server in these short-staffed times, notes that he worked in western Europe and O.C. following culinary school in Mexico City, including Michelin-starred restaurants such as Pujol, Enrique Olvera’s heavily praised temple of modern gastronomy in Mexico City.

Executive chef Juan Pablo Cruz

Cruz tells L.A. TACO that he turned down a position at a big hotel in L.A. to helm Gema instead, in order to be himself, with all the necessary freedom to execute captivating dishes guided by genuine Mexican ingredients on his beloved West Coast.

“If it isn’t available in Mexico, we don’t serve it here,” he says.

In a chic, open-air dining room of blended materials and upright plants that gives us flashbacks of Damian, his devotion to delicacies becomes apparent the second you crack a menu. Cocktails mixed with ancestral Mexican whiskey and wines from the Valle precede dishes that stretch the imagination with phrases like “grasshopper crème,” “macadamia dust,” and housemade “hibiscus cheese.”

The "Ezquite" with Tequila, Grand Marnier, corn puree, and Frangelico

Sitting with a tequila and fresh corn puree cocktail inspired by the street classic of esquites, a chile-rim garnished with a miniature cob of charred corn, one of the chef’s first “bienvenidas,” or small welcoming whimsies, arrives at the table. It’s an austere white plate ringed with handmade corn tortillas straining to confine a puddle of rich, copper red mole negro.

Cruz sources a large percentage of his ingredients from Mexico, and his kitchen insists on making almost everything from scratch. The corn for his masa comes from Oaxaca, where the dish—a kaleidoscope of dried fruit, scorched chiles, and dark chocolate flavors—instantly transport you. Before we attempt to sop up the remains with our napkins and eat it, the dishes we order begin to infiltrate our terrazzo table.

Camarones flameados in grasshopper creme with corn croutons, macadamia dust, sorrel, and charred heirloom tomatoes

First come camarones flameados; fat, macadamia nut-dusted, chapulín crème-slicked shrimp bearing blackened edges, scattered with grill-kissed heirloom tomatoes, thinly sliced radishes, ragged corn croutons, and red-veined sorrel leaves, the plate dabbed all over with a tart orange sauce speckled with ground chicatanas, Oaxaca’s seasonal delicacy of flying ants.

Calamar al comal with lima paste, chile manzano, charred broccoli and jicama

The pearly white flesh of an upturned calamar al comal materializes next, looking like it may spring off its bed of charred broccoli and jicama to adhere to some poor sucker’s face. Tables turn and soon, we’re savoring its tender, smoky tentacles in rapture, the heat of chile manzano adding another layer to the meaty, buttery, crunchy, tangy hootenanny.

Blue corn dumpling topped with pickled onion and habanero crema.

Another of Cruz’s small, free offerings arrives in the form of a tiny, frameable blue corn dumpling filled with seabass on a jade green blob of basil mayo that’s also peppered with chicatana. On top, the smallest sliver of pickled onion is trapped in habanero crema. Molletes, housemade quesillo-style cheese, and crunchy, white Tatuma squash on housemade brioche follow, bridging Cruz’s Mexican and Iberian identities.

White corn tostada with Wagyu tartare in recado negro and cured egg foam.

There’s a comely Wagyu tartare covering a white corn tostada topped with fried onions and dotted with cured egg foam, glistening darkly in a recado negro, and packed with the smoky flavors of chile and alliums.

A tlacoyo filled with housemade queso fresco looks like a poked-out tongue, topped with short rib birria, grasshopper crème, and a radish micro-salad, all wading in a pale yellow tomatillo broth and stark white mash of beans. The lushly dusty note of chapulin sustains through each bite.

Hazelnut-crusted chile relleno in tomato espuma topped with quail egg and serrano.

The nascent restaurant’s most likely-to-go-viral dish appears to be the chile relleno, which skips the traditional egg batter for a formidable ground hazelnut crust, though it sports a crown of a serrano-topped quail egg in tribute to the absent ovum. Inside is an alloy of housemade queso fresco and Gema’s own “quesillo,” layered with the sweet funk of huitlacoche.

The entire chile pasilla, its hazelnut coat providing a drier take on the eggier, battered-and-fried examples we covet, sits in tomato espuma, and despite its eccentricities, old rules still apply. Meaning, like any good chile relleno, the fat, jiggly butt by the stem is still the best part.

Gema’s dishes are rooted firmly in their ingredients, spanning Mexican delicacies, time-treasured assets, and the gains of a Southern California farmers market. Despite all the crazy words that fly off the menu’s page, his recipes never steer focus from their central stars, be they proteins, root vegetables, or hulking chiles, with the wilder stuff providing inflections and complexity but never stealing the show.

Frijoles de la olla with Bayo beans and queso fresco in an epazote broth.

Two of our favorite dishes are, in fact, a simple bowl of Bayo beans, de la olla, afloat in a clear epazote broth, and a quesadilla ordered for the table’s smallest associate; another simple delight whisking us back to the streets of Oaxaca through its salty cheese and tortilla alone, paper-skinned and corn-perfumed.

Attempting to taste as many things as possible before tapping out, we stick to appetizers and segundos, without trying Cruz’s main courses, such as jackfruit pibil, Aussie Wagyu in a tamarindo adobo, and Alaskan halibut pastor.

Dulce de leche ice cream and flourless chocolate cake with cherries and graham cracker crumbles

Despite a shortage of stomach space, dessert is devoured: a tumult of dulce de leche ice cream and smashed flourless chocolate cake with cherries, edible flowers, and graham cracker crumbles, plus a bowl of tortilla-sized buñelos with caramel ice cream, hibiscus, and pepitas.

So, next time you’re speeding back from the border or bolting down the 405, and the undeniable urge for more maíz, chiles, grasshopper crème, and chicatanas takes over, slow down and consider pulling up. You have a captivating new destination to set your sights on for forward-leaning, contemporary Mexican cuisine stoked by the edible rewards of both Mexico and home.

Gema ~ 110 S. El Camino Real, San Clemente 92672. Closest transit line and stop: OC Bus Line 1 - "El Camino Real/Avenida Cabrillo."

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