LONG BEACH - El Lobo is a far cry from the typical chain restaurants that have come to define Mexican cuisine.
Instead, the owner makes daily trips to the farmers market for authentic food in a rustic restaurant located in the heart of the Bluff Heights neighborhood.
First-time chef Sonia Gomez opened the 40-seat eatery five months ago. Gomez, 44, former general manager of Alegria Cocina Latina on Pine Avenue, has been in the restaurant industry for 25 years.
But on July 1, her dream of opening her own restaurant came to fruition. She is not only the executive chef, but partner at El Lobo, located at 2941 E. Broadway.
"The passion started as a child with my mother's recipes," she said. "I have always loved classic Mexican food that was health conscious and light, but exceptionally well done."
Gomez teamed up with Long Beach restaurateurs David and Luca Carteni and Stefano Procaccini of Passaparola Trattoria Italiano and La Parolaccia, located next door to El Lobo.
"David and Stefano let me loose and left it up to me," she said. "These are my family recipes, ones that I have been making since I was 15, and I think that people really appreciate the classiness of the menu."
Gomez said the idea was to have something "new, fresh and small," but they wanted to "do it right and different from what's being done in big restaurants."
"I go to the farmers market and pick my ingredients every day for that night's menu," she said.
Though being in the kitchen wasn't previously on Gomez's resume, she has flourished.
"I have been in and out of every aspect of the restaurant business," she said. "But being in the kitchen, that is a whole different beast, but I love it. I really love being in the kitchen.
The menu includes classic entrees such as open-fire roasted poblano peppers stuffed with pork picadillo (pears, plums and almonds) drizzled with walnut cream sauce and sprinkled with fresh pomegranates; pan-seared red snapper sauteed in a fresh tomato; olive and caper jalapeno tequila sauce and grilled black tiger prawns sauteed in a garlic chile de arbol sauce with green and red bell peppers and onions served over stewed potatoes and vegetables.
All of the entrees are priced for less than $20.
"It's a small menu," Gomez said. "We have three types of meat and three types of seafood. We wanted it small so it could be done fresh every single day. It is a seasonal menu that we have paired with a nice wine list, which isn't typical for a Mexican restaurant, but it really works well with our dishes."
El Lobo boasts a decor reminiscent of a cozy dining room of an old colonial Mexican hacienda, with vintage movie posters of famous Mexican films lining the walls.
"We really wanted to make our customers feel like they were dining in their grandmother's home," she said.
From the start, Gomez said, business has been steady, and already has a share of regulars.
Gomez said she is living her dream.
"This has been a very exciting process," she said. "It has been very rewarding. The customers and the city have been very loyal and fantastic - it's amazing and just so exciting."