Welcome to Dining Confidential, a monthly column in which local chefs talk about their favorite restaurants, bars, and cafes in Portland, highlighting their own restaurant’s ethos and sharing fun personal takes. Know of a chef you’d like to see featured? Let us know via our tip line.
Luna Contreras, one of Portland’s most buzzy and nomadic new chefs, has finally begun to settle down. Throughout 2023, she has refined her produce-focused Mexican dishes at Chelo, popping up three days a week at Dame’s Lil Dame space on Northeast Killingsworth. Portlanders are lucky to be able to consistently visit Contreras at one place: Since moving to Portland from the Bay Area five years ago, Contreras has been going nonstop, with stints at Ox, Bistro Agnes, Nightingale, Janken, and as a growing social personality, frequently appearing in local publications and even on Netflix.
In interviews and on Instagram, Contreras regularly speaks up about the challenges and joys of being in the public eye as a transgender chef. A note that always rings clear when hearing her speak is her love of, and hope for, Portland, folded in among all the exhaustion and hot takes. “I always tell people that Portland saved my life, you know?” Contreras says. “You can do things here without feeling like people are judging you. Early on in my transition, I was burnt out. I didn’t know how to work with people, I was in a suffocating space. But collaborative work saved me. It’s good to have a community.”
We caught up with Contreras at Lil’ Dame to discuss the community she’s built and her favorite things to eat when she’s not in the kitchen, from nostalgic tacos to solo brewery burgers. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Portland is an interesting place. For many, it’s out of the way, a place to disappear and reappear as one chooses. But it’s also so tight-knit that if you want to do something important, if you want to make a change, you can. As a trans chef, you’re a bit “on stage” at the moment — does it sometimes feel like a lot, to have people looking at you and to you?
It’s been a very intense year for me and for the queer community in general. A lot of the time, I’ll get messages that say, “You people are killers,” and I think about making my Instagram private. But then, I’ll get queer kids reaching out and I just can’t. I’ve just gotta make it. That’s what we have to do, continue what we’re doing.
A lot of queer spaces, when you’re under 21, are not accessible. But an 18 year old trans kid can come to eat at your restaurant. That means something.
We do get a lot of queer folks, a lot of trans folks. Cooking has helped me build that community. They come because they feel some kind of safety.
Who are some of the people that you would like to shout out for helping build your Portland community?
Aaron from Fermenter is the sweetest person, he’s like an encyclopedia. He’s really funny and has been so supportive. Same with Gregory Gourdet at Kann; really sweet, he’s such a good person. Peter Cho [Han Oak, Toki, Jeju]. Waz Wu helps me find all the vegan spots, she’s amazing. I love Carlo Lamagna – I just went out to his new space in Beaverton, on the cute little street with the train tracks. Greg [Denton] and Gabrielle [Quiñónez Denton] from Ox and Bistro Agnes, who I worked for three years, they always treated me well, and still do. A lot of people were surprised when I came out as trans, but I think they kind of always knew. And I like to go out to eat with Sam [Smith].
What are some of your neighborhood spots?
I live in St. Johns, which is kind of removed. I like to walk to this food cart called Cozo Grill at the St. Johns Beer Porch, they have a really good B.L.T. There’s a cart there called Pizza Creature, they do a really good seasonal pie with asparagus. That’s one of my favorite pizza places. Pastificio d’Oro, I like going to them, they’re super sweet, and the pasta is done by hand, so there’s time to enjoy a Negroni.
Is that your go-to drink?
I love a Negroni, but I drink beer. My partner’s vegetarian, so I eat a lot of vegetarian stuff, but when I go out alone, I can go to a brewery and eat meat. I really like the burger at Migration Brewing.
A brewery burger can be underrated! Some are very good. Where else do you eat when you’re not working?
I honestly don’t go to a lot of fancy spots. I like going to queer-owned spots. Taquería Los Puñales, they’re really sweet and funny. I like going there by myself; it’s a cherished place.
Mis Tacones, the food’s good. I like the funky nachos; they’re enough for two people. Also the al pastor tacos. I love that trans people of color eat free there.
I get tacos, to be honest. They just hit. I like La Tapatia in Gresham. Taquerias remind me of my grandma. When I was a kid, my hair was super curly and I would wear dresses, and she was the only one who was cool with me. We’d always get tacos together, so when I eat them now, they remind me of her.