Written by Lisa Ledwith
Gabby Orejel looks at home in a colorful booth at Las Camelinas, her restaurant in downtown Salida. She smiles easily and her warmth and gratitude create a contagious positivity. It’s hard not to feel inspired as she recalls how hard work, conviction and a little bit of luck landed her in Salida. “This has been the best life,” she says.
23 years ago, Gabby’s husband Juan became the head chef at Fiesta Mexicana and they moved from Washington. Change felt scary–she was 20 and raising two kids. But her mentor gave her a piece of advice she’s never forgotten: “If you don’t go, you’ll never know what it would have been like.” She moved, and says she’s loved every day since.
Gabby’s happiness hasn’t happened by accident–she’s created it. Her relentless drive and tireless work ethic initially led her to work three jobs: dental hygienist and public health by day, waiting tables at Fiesta Mexicana by night. She also continued to raise and grow her family, adding three more children over the years.
When it came time to open her own restaurant, Gabby brought the same dedication. She and Juan found a spot on Hwy 50 and, put her first food order on a credit card and hit the ground running. She was nervous, but took the risk. ”If you don’t do it, you’ll never know. And if you fall, you’ll get back up,” she says.
This advice came in handy when, two years after opening, her landlord announced they were selling the building. That very day she saw a “For Rent” sign on First St. and knew it was meant to be. They moved the restaurant, initially using folding tables and chairs, but always getting the food to the people. Today, the space is colorful, bright and all theirs–they bought the building in 2017.
Las Camelinas is a true family restaurant. Four of her children have worked for her and she couldn’t have made it through Covid without them. Becky (29) and Zef (28) came back to help in 2020. Her son Juan Jr., a senior leaving for School of Mines in September, started running the kitchen when housing costs drove her chef of seven years out of town.
No matter how hard it is, Gabby feels grateful. She loves her regulars. She loves that when she tells her kids to be “home” by dark, they know she means their restaurant. And every night before leaving, she loves stepping outside and looking back through the window with awe. “I don’t know how I ever got so lucky,” she says.