‘Top Chef’ Star Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins Brings Regional Mexican Cuisine to San Diego

‘Top Chef’ Star Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins Brings Regional Mexican Cuisine to San Diego

Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins opens her much-anticipated culinary tribute to the matriarchy in San Diego today. The former Top Chef contestant steps into the executive chef role at El Jardin, where she’s planned a “grandma-chic” Mexican menu inspired by all of the Mexican women who have cooked before her. “Really it’s the women that are the gatekeepers for our traditions,” she said to Eater.

Zepeda-Wilkins spent her childhood in San Diego and Tijuana and Guadalajara, Mexico, and El Jardin’s “grandma food with better presentation,” as she described it to Eater San Diego, reflects this upbringing. El Jardin’s enchiladas suizas, for example, come from a family recipe that dates back to Zepeda-Wilkin’s aunt’s restaurant in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The menu also incorporates more than 30 ingredients that Zepeda-Wilkins sourced during the two years she spent traveling in Mexico in the lead-up to the opening, as well as local seafood and produce from a garden right in the restaurant’s backyard. Outdoor space is integral to El Jardin, and most of the restaurant’s 130 seats are outside on the patio or adjacent lounge.

A dish at El JardinJim Sullivan/El Jardin

El Jardin is a part of San Diego’s Rise & Shine restaurant group, and Zepeda-Wilkins collaborated with the group’s founder, Johan Engman, on a design that incorporates Guadalajaran chairs and bar stools and a mural by San Diego artist Gloria Muriel, which makes the Mexican symbol Ojo de Dios a focal point of the space.

The drinks at El Jardin also reflect its mission to highlight both women-led and Mexican businesses. Tequilas and mezcals will star, appearing alongside lesser-known agave-derived drinks like sotol and bacanora. Wines focus alternately on Mexican producers and international selections with an emphasis on female winemakers.

Zepeda-Wilkins’s approach to service may best encapsulate her goals for the restaurant. She told Eater she wants dining at El Jardin to feel like “going to your aunt’s house” — or in Zepeda-Wilkins’s case, her restaurant.

El Jardin opens for dinner tonight with brunch to follow. Take a look around below:

Seating at El Jardin
Seating at El Jardin 
Heartwork Hill/Eater San Diego
The patio at El Jardin
The patio at El Jardin
 Heartwork Hill/Eater San Diego
Bar seating at El Jardin
Bar seating at El Jardin 
Heartwork Hill/Eater San Diego
Some food on an outdoor table at El Jardin
A meal at El Jardin
 Heartwork Hill/Eater San Diego