Gabby Lopez is standing over a searing hot molcajete on our table. It’s a giant stone cauldron, and at least a little dangerous. Inside, a chile-red stew of sorts burbles with shrimp and octopus and scallops. Lopez’s mask is darkened a bit from kitchen sweat, and her eyes are equal parts exhaustion and inexhaustible joy. It took her over 20 years to open La Doña here in Ocean Beach, the restaurant she dreamt about as a kid growing up in Tijuana. She has a small ownership percentage (it’s a partnership with Social Syndicate, who’s also behind Wonderland, Bootlegger, Grand Ole BBQ), and you can tell it is enough for her and it is everything.
“It is so much work,” she admits, “but I am so happy. I started from the bottom, with nothing. God is blessing us right now; we are doing well. If I have to go back to clean floors for people again, I will. I don’t care. But everything in this restaurant has a story of my family.”
Raised by parents who cooked (her mom was “the birria queen” and her dad a chef who worked in San Diego), Lopez was making tortillas from scratch by the time she was eight. She wanted to become a chef, “but I got pregnant when I was very young, so you do whatever you have to do,” she says. As a teenage mom, she’d clean houses all day to pay the bills and afford culinary school at night.
With the help of Mina Desiderio, who hired Lopez to cook for her family’s parties, word of mouth spread. Lopez started her own catering company and became a private chef for Mexican celebrities, including boxer Canelo Alvarez. She consulted for restaurants in the Social Syndicate, from Wonderland to The Local and OB Surf Lodge. Then Desiderio told her friend she needed her own place.
“Before, I was a free bird,” Lopez says. “But now people know La Doña is me. I don’t want to sound arrogant—it’s just a dream I’ve been pursuing a long, long time.”
The burrito is her grandmother’s recipe (ranchero steak and sauteed shrimp, smothered with guajillo red and verde sauces, topped with Cotija, garlic, and scallions). A woman stands at a plancha next to the streetside window all day, constantly making the Lopez family recipe tortillas. The birria is the same her mom, the birria queen, slow-cooked every weekend. And the star of the menu, that burbling seafood stew of sorts in the flaming-hot molcajete cauldron, is a memory of her dad.
“We used to go to San Felipe, and my dad had a little old motorhome that we’d park by the ocean very close to the sand,” she says. “He bought a molcajete from a local vendor and just put it straight onto the campfire. He threw mussels and shrimp. He made a salsa and threw it in there, added a little butter. He didn’t have a recipe. He was just cooking, and it tasted so good.”
In the sauce for her “Molcajete del Mar,” the stone vessel is coated with melted cheese (Oaxacan and Asadero, best known for its contribution to chile con queso). It’s orange from bloomed chipotle, with deep notes of garlic butter and caramelized onions and a ping of fresh lime. It’s best eaten with a spoon, and it’s a testament to the laborious yet essential things Lopez does to build her flavors.
“Most of our food is Guadalajara and Tijuana and Baja,” she says. “But I love the food of Oaxaca and Puebla. Indigenous foods where people toast their spices, saute their chiles, dry their own chiles, layer flavor over flavor. I’m trying to do all the little things that many people don’t take the time to do.”
Like this morning. She’s been up since 4 a.m. making moles and tamales for the Dia de los Muertos dinner. “We’re going to have mariachis!” she says, and you can tell that, too, is everything.
1852 Bacon Street, Ocean Beach