Decked out with an eye-catching floral tablecloth, blue and white otomi textiles, and a donkey pinata, chef Luna Contreras’ Chelo booth at Portland farmers markets welcomes shoppers to sample hot sauces. You’ll find smoky chipotle, carrot habanero and serrano with green herbs like oregano and cilantro.
Those with their finger on the pulse of the Portland dining scene know Contreras as the chef who propelled the restaurant Nightingale into the spotlight in the middle of the pandemic. Her solo venture, Chelo, builds a reputation with continually transforming Mexican street food pop-ups and collaborations, as well as her condiment line.
Like many chefs in these difficult times for the restaurant industry, Contreras relies on her pop-ups for creative freedom and more flexibility than a brick-and-mortar can provide. A collaborative approach is common among Portland chefs who don’t have a conventional home base or those looking to branch out beyond their restaurant gigs, while adapting to ever-changing COVID-19 protocols. With the condiments as a base, the business model also allows her to shift the menu and partner with others as the inspiration leads her — and it leads her to some great places. Read on to learn about her history, culture and where to catch her in action.
A Nourishing Grandma in Guadalajara
Chelo is a word that is dear to Contreras’ heart. It evokes her grandmother’s nickname and nostalgia for her cooking for the community. It is a channel for her voice as a proud brown trans Latina.
Born in Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, Contreras’ fondest childhood memories revolve around her grandmother’s fonda — a small, family-run restaurant serving Mexican street foods — and the heart of her grandparents’ home. A young Contreras tagged along with her grandmother, bringing baskets on the bus to shop for seafood and vegetables at markets. In their garage, they served street snacks like potato taquitos and shredded-chicken tostadas, which inspired the masa creations that Contreras serves today.
The chef isn’t trying to re-create her grandmother’s recipes; instead, she’s paying homage to the memory of her grandmother. Contreras recalls how protective her grandmother was, providing a safe haven when she began experiencing gender dysphoria.
“She was very cool about identity,” the chef says, mentioning her loving support when Contreras — as a boy around 9 years old — wore dresses, even to Catholic church. This was in distinct contrast to the reaction of others, especially Contreras’ father, who refused to accept her as she was.
Highly Acclaimed Seasonal Mexican Cuisine and Sauces
Before Portland, Contreras made a mark on the San Francisco Bay Area restaurant scene. At Fonda, a Latin restaurant in Berkeley, Contreras worked as sous chef alongside culinary mentor David Rosales. She fell in love with seasonal produce while staging at Alice Waters’ iconic Chez Panisse. As the executive chef of San Francisco restaurants Mamacita and Padrecito, Contreras honed her expertise in seasonal Mexican cuisine and won various awards in the culinary world. While Contreras is proud of those accomplishments, the demanding kitchens left the chef burnt out.
In 2015 Contreras moved to Portland for a fresh start, working at restaurants like the Argentine grill Ox and now-closed Bistro Agnes. Her own taqueria, Nightingale, opened in 2020, impressing diners with masa-based street foods stuffed with griddled meats and local vegetables paired with agave-spirit cocktails. This was where the hot sauces — in bottles adorned with her brand Chelo’s fox mascot by Portland-based artist Eliana Enriquez — made their debut.
Now you can find Chelo condiments online and at seasonal BIPOC markets, like My People’s Market and Come Thru Market, and weekly Hawthorne and Montavilla farmers markets. Local retailers including Wellspent Market, Providore Fine Foods, Montelupo, Food Fight! Grocery, Zuckercreme and AleFire also carry the sauces.
Collaborative, Cross-Cultural Pop-Ups
The flexibility of a pop-up allows Contreras to appear at many venues in and around Portland, serving her own cuisine and meshing with vibrant culinary talents with similar passions but very different backgrounds, styles, or kitchen set-ups. In her collaborative work, Contreras emphasizes Chelo’s mission to gather and uplift others.
Whenever Contreras pops up at Magna Kusina, for example, she serves Mexican-style snacks with bold, vegetable-forward flavors, like mole poblano, oyster mushroom and potato flautas, or duck-carnitas tacos with rapini and guava. Dinners at Cafe Olli center around the oven, resulting in dishes like wood-fired halibut with yucca puree and king-trumpet mushrooms. The chef also explores beautifully plated tasting menus for special events, like a recent five-course dinner at Multnomah Whiskey Library.
She regularly partners with others, like Michelle Ruocco, previously of Han Oak, Paadee bartender Adriana Alvarez, Ketsuda “Nan” Chaison of Mestizo and KaTi, and Gabriella Martinez, pastry chef at Dame and Sweet Creature. When Contreras and Sibeiho’s Holly Ong join forces, the women offer takeout brunch boxes of Mexican-meets-Singaporean street foods.
To catch a Chelo pop-up, follow Contreras on Instagram for upcoming dates and tickets. One of the chef’s upcoming events is a four-course harvest dinner with pairings on Sept. 30 at Cafe Rowan, where Contreras will be partnering with collaborators Spencer Ivankoe — the cafe’s chef/owner — and Gabriella Martinez.
Events and Community Activism
In the past year, Contreras has participated in festival-style events like Feast Portland and Taste for Equity, was filmed in Netflix’s Snack vs. Chef, and contributed to fundraisers, all the while building community. As a board member of Family Meal, a Portland-based nonprofit that provides relief grants to food-service and agricultural workers, Contreras translates for immigrant families facing financial hardship due to pandemic-related work displacement and inadequate insurance.
In addition to announcing upcoming events on Instagram, Contreras uses her platform to share her hormone-replacement therapy journey, amplify transgender voices and offer mentorship to transgender youth. “There are many fights, battles, cries and reasons to keep at it,” she related on Instagram about a recent, private trans-youth event at Side Yard Farm, “I am super proud to be a trans elder!”
A Call for Change, Support and Solidarity
As Contreras navigates the next chapter for herself and Chelo, drawing inspiration from the little bird with a powerful song that her former restaurant was named after, the chef says she will always speak up so her voice and experiences as a trans Mexican immigrant are heard.
Within the food community, Contreras has found belonging, but it is still a difficult space to navigate. When questioned about the price of her tacos, for instance, Contreras takes on the racist assumption that Mexican street food is made with low-quality ingredients or without the care of a trained chef.
Even with pop-ups and markets, Contreras says she struggles to make ends meet, let alone figure out how to take her business to the next level. The chef says that support should be more accessible to BIPOC business owners in Portland. She emphasizes how important it is to retain full ownership of her business instead of joining a restaurant group; in her view, an independently owned Mexican restaurant makes a bold statement in the fight against institutional racism.
As such, her future plans include opening a Mexican restaurant-grocery store hybrid that may, yet again, evoke the cherished fonda of her grandparents — offering street foods and Mexican baked goods and pastries.