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At Chelo, Chef Luna Contreras Pays Homage to Her Grandmother With Mexican Snacks

Luna Contreras’s Mexican pop-up with star bartender Michelle Ruocco lands at Magna as a two-day weekly residency, serving dishes like maitake gorditas alongside crispy chickpeas

A plate of golden beets, figs, sesame seeds, and goat cheese at Chelo, a pop-up based at Magna in Portland, Oregon.
A fig dish with beets and goat cheese at Chelo.
Courtesy of Chelo

Growing up in Guadalajara, Luna Contreras idolized her grandmother. Nicknamed Chelo, she would take Contreras to the markets to find food for her fonda, a small market attached to her home. Often she would let Contreras wear dresses on these trips, before she had come out as transgender. “She was the one who accepted (my) identity situation,” Contreras says. Home at her fonda, Chelo would serve what Contreras describes as “straightforward street snacks in Guadalajara,” including bags of peanuts and fried chickpeas.

Since her move to the United States, Contreras has made a name for herself in Portland, with time spent at restaurants Ox, Superbite, and Bistro Agnes. In late 2020, she opened her own restaurant, Nightingale, with bartender Chris Mateja, but she left in spring of 2021. Now, she’s reviving her 2017 pop-up Chelo PDX, named for her grandmother, as a pop-up in residency at Filipino restaurant Magna Kusina. With this new iteration, Contreras has teamed up with bar veteran Michelle Ruocco, making dishes like maitake gorditas, sopes with cured duck eggs, and that knockout tres leches cake that developed a following at Nightingale.

While working on her new pop-up, Contreras has found inspiration in her early days. However, she’s not trying to replicate her grandmother’s cooking or the street food of Guadalajara markets directly. Instead, she’s looking to “replicate that nostalgia and that vibe of being seven to 10 years old, tagging along with my mentor figure. It’s an ode to that,” she says.

Running from 5 p.m. until sold out (generally around 9:30) Mondays and Tuesdays, Chelo’s menu will likely look familiar to those who visited Nightingale while Contreras was there. Vegetable-heavy, contemporary Mexican cooking remains her signature; however, the menu at Chelo is more casual, oriented toward street foods and drinking snacks. Diners looking for bar bites will find it in the form of boiled peanuts, fried chickpeas, and other bagged snacks, like her grandmother would sell. Hungrier visitors can find more robust items—the opening menu included cured albacore crudo, duck confit tacos, and a beet dish with fig and goat cheese. As a fun touch, Contreras welcomes diners with an amuse bouche of a soup, and finishes meals with polvorones, or Mexican wedding cookies. Chelo’s menu is entirely gluten free, and much of it will be vegetarian and vegan-friendly. It will also regularly shift and change, but with consistent themes: There will always be masa dishes, for instance, but they may be tacos, sopes, or gorditas.

Similarly, the cocktail menu will be a constantly evolving one. Ruocco is no stranger to pairing creative and bold cocktails to a variety of cuisines, having run the bar at Korean restaurant Han Oak for four years, not to mention stints at establishments like Woodsman Tavern, Tusk, Renata, and, most recently, Lazy Susan. The pair are closely collaborating on the project, and she says she draws inspiration from Contreras’ menu. “I’m so enamored with everything Luna is doing,” she says. “I’m drawing inspiration from the food to say, ‘How can I translate this food into a drink that also speaks to the food again?’ while keeping it light and savory and crushable.” Ruocco’s style balances the sweet and savory elements of drinks: For instance, the For Esme combines vodka with squash, sesame, guava, coconut, and lime. Like the food, many of the drinks will change week to week, but Ruocco plans on keeping drinks around if they become popular.

For the time being, Chelo will remain a two-person, two-day operation, but the duo are looking to expand, both with staff and, eventually perhaps, with more days. In the meantime, Magna will be honoring its own pop-up roots and hosting more chefs during its off hours: Earlier this year, Magna hosted Sunrice, a pop-up specializing in contemporary Filipino and Vietnamese comfort foods, for brunch service, and Allie G’s Pastries — a Filipino baked goods pop-up — will begin a residency on on Sunday and Monday mornings starting in November. Magna’s own service runs from Thursday to Saturday evenings.

Chelo starts service for walk-ins only at 5 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays at 2525 SE Clinton Street.

Magna

2525 Southeast Clinton Street, Portland, OR Visit Website

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