Chef Gabbi Patrick has brought a modern, unique twist to Orange County’s increasingly sophisticated, and increasingly recognized, collection of Mexico-inspired restaurants.
In doing so, the restaurateur has helped plant a culinary flag in two of OC’s most historic downtown areas, Old Towne Orange and Old Town Tustin.
Patrick’s acclaimed restaurants—Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen in Orange and Chaak Kitchen in Tustin—offer far more than just generic south of the border cuisine. The restaurants, which opened in 2006 and 2018, respectively, specialize in integrating modern gastronomy with indigenous and regional recipes of Mexico.
Chaak, in particular, is unique in that it explores the distinct cuisine of the Yucatán Peninsula.
Each has garnered their fair share of foodie plaudits.
Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen and Chaak Kitchen have earned Bib Gourmand distinctions in the Michelin Guide, an impressive feat worthy of Patrick’s extraordinary and authentic culinary creations.
The designation is given by Michelin for the country’s best value for money restaurants.
“We were so ecstatic to get those Bib Gourmand distinctions—we know how hard it is to be consistent, and to be in the Michelin Guide for three years in a row” says a lot, Patrick stated during an interview at her Orange restaurant.
“We strive for consistency. It’s hard to hold that standard with two restaurants, and give an experience. We care about how everyone feels when they come here, and we deliver the food to make it even better.”
Add one more accolade to Patrick’s resume: she’s the Business Journal’s 2023 Chef of the Year.
Patrick grew up in a restaurant environment.
Her parents were from the Yucatán Peninsula and after relocating to the U.S. ran several Mexican restaurants.
Patrick was working front of house in a restaurant when she was 18 and loved it, but knew little about the back of house and wanted to get involved in the techniques and the cuisine of the restaurant. She enrolled in the UCLA Culinary Institute, where she met her future husband, Ed Patrick.
The couple became motivated to travel to Mexico and explore the cuisine.
“It was eye-opening,” she said. “They were using ingredients and herbs in a way that I did not see here 20 years ago. I was inspired by their ingredients. Even my parents, who had restaurants for years, did not use those ingredients, so it was definitely an enlightening trip.”
After further research into the dishes she and Ed sampled, Patrick wrote a menu, they found a space along Glassell Street, just south of the circle in Old Towne Orange, and opened Gabbi’s.
She did the cooking while Ed ran the front of house.
Life Near the Circle
When Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen opened in 2006, Orange was not a culinary destination.
Most of the downtown area consisted of antique shops and small boutiques. When Ed told Gabbi he had found a good spot for a restaurant, she was dubious when she saw the empty antique store space.
But once Patrick saw beyond the linoleum and carpet, she found a charming historic building that Patrick now says is magical.
After transforming the space into a restaurant, Patrick began plying her culinary craft.
“Everything I have done I have made it my own,” she said. “I have a certain style of cuisine. I wanted to bring more of the heart of Mexico here, more masa because masa is important in our culture. We have masa items you do not see in your typical restaurant.”
Patrick has a handful of seasonal dishes on her menu—dishes that cannot be added permanently due to her small kitchen and the volume of business she does.
“It’s not a big kitchen, that’s why Gabbi’s would be hard to duplicate,” she said. “I would never put this somewhere else. The quirkiness of the building, the historic ceiling, and knowing I built a kitchen in a former antique store—it’s beautiful to see. Of course, it does have its challenges being built in 1904, but we love it.”
Her dishes at Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen are traditional but her spin on them is unique.
Most of them you won’t find on other restaurant menus.
Her puebla tacos, for example, are one of the most popular items on her menu.
“It’s a meat lovers taco,” Patrick said. “It has linguica sausage, applewood smoked bacon and carne asada, but what’s important is the vessel. The flour tortilla, and the smokey salsa, makes a great taco.”
The enchiladas de camarones is another favorite, as are the gorditas al pastor with crispy masa cake, Kurobuta pork belly and serrano-cilantro salsa.
Although Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen was a success with diners and had received numerous accolades, an idea for another restaurant was forming, something different than Gabbi’s.
“I said ‘what if we did food from the Yucatán?’ Ed said ‘sure, let’s do it,’” Patrick recalled. “It’s the food I grew up with, and no one here was doing that so why not challenge myself. And it was a challenge.”
Patrick began writing her Chaak menu to see if she could actually make a restaurant out of it.
“I felt like I could do Yucatán cuisine with my own twist, of course,” Patrick said. “Yucatán food is a little heavy, so I lightened the dishes. I’m happy with how it turned out.”
To make sure the recipes worked, she rented a test kitchen and spent nine months perfecting the recipes before Chaak opened along El Camino Real, just north of Main Street in Tustin.
“I wanted to make sure they would turn out the way I wanted,” Patrick said. “Everything on the menu has my approval. It’s such a great vision to taste the Yucatán.”
Patrick was able to build her ideal state-of-the-art kitchen including a smoker, because “Yucatán food is all about smoke. The kitchen is beautiful, it’s a dream come true.”
The Chaak menu is very different than the Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen menu. The word “smoked” is featured prominently, and the dishes are indeed an homage to the Yucatán.
One of the most popular dishes is the almejas al vapor picantes: littleneck clams, green chorizo, herb broth and avocado. And of course, the empanadas with Oaxaca cheese and epazote.
One of Patrick’s favorites is the Pavo en Recado Negro: smoked turkey, blackened chilmole, radish salpicon and tortillas.
“The turkey with black mole sounds off-putting but you will never have it anywhere else,” Patrick stated. “It’s not something you would normally have. It’s slow cooked, tender, with black charred chili sauce. It represents what this restaurant is about. And the duck confit smoked in cherry wood, tossed with lime and radishes and pickled onion. I always have that. I am so proud of those dishes every time I am at Chaak.”
Despite her success, Patrick is still evolving her cuisine, always striving to be better.
“Can you make this dish at home? If you can, you would not go out. That’s why we have the Bib Gourmand recognition. It’s challenging to have a chef-driven restaurant. I am always thinking about what we can do to give an experience to our guests and make them feel like they are transported to the Yucatán.”
The other thing that keeps Patrick going is motivating the next generation.
“I see a lot of talent out there. We hire a lot of culinary students, especially at Chaak, and some of those kids are very talented. When I was their age being a chef was not a career, now it is a career. I was self-taught, I did not work with a great chef, if something did not work out, I had to figure it out.”
“It’s not always easy, or glamorous. You have to be self-motivated. You have to motivate yourself every day.”
Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen: 141 S. Glassell
St., Orange, (714) 633-3038, gabbismexicankitchen.com
Chaak Kitchen: 215 El Camino Real, Tustin, (657) 699-3019, chaakkitchen.com
Of Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen, the Michelin Guide notes that “the cooks here understand the essence of regional Mexican cuisine, so trust in their skills.
Many of these dishes offer a spin on traditional items, as in the citrus-tinged achiote pork that tops creamy black beans and puffed corn tortillas in panuchos de Yucatán. Tacos are a signature for good reason; and the Puebla with spicy sausage, carne asada, smoked applewood bacon, and morita salsa delivers just the right level of piquancy.”
The Michelin Guide said that the Chaak Kitchen team “brings the vibrant smoke- and spice-focused cuisine of the Yucatán Peninsula to life. Of course, that same region’s rich and complex history simply means diners can expect nothing less than seriously intriguing cooking … spoon up every last drop of the charred habanero salsa that accompanies crisp corn empanadas filled with Oaxacan cheese and epazote. Sikil p’ak—a pumpkin seed dip—is a regional favorite; then turkey smothered in pungent recado rojo makes a heady delight.”