In January 2023, vegan Venezuelan pop-up El Salto made its debut at a Portland Trail Blazers game: Paola Leon selling vegan arepas out of a food warmer outside the Moda Center. Out of the fifteen arepas she prepared, she only sold two. The chef says she got made fun of and went home crying — but that didn’t stop Leon from pursuing El Salto further. Fast forward eight months and many pop-ups later, El Salto will open as a cart serving vegan arepas, patacón, pastelitos, and other Venezuelan comfort foods at the Bite on Belmont food pod on September 30.
Portland’s vegan scene brought Leon and her partner Pablo Cruz here from Florida several years ago, but they found that Venezuelan cuisine was underrepresented here. When they did come across a Venezuelan food cart, it was lacking in vegan options. At the time, vegan arepas were completely unheard of. “No one knows what Venezuelan food even is… a lot of people don’t even know where Venezuela is,” says Leon. “It’s such a conversation starter: ‘What do we speak there?’ ‘What do we eat?’” Even today, she has noticed that for many Portlanders, their limited exposure to Latin American cuisine is through Mexican food. Leon wants to expand their palates with El Salto, contributing both to the diversity of Portland’s culinary landscape as a whole and more specifically the vegan community that drew her here in the first place.
For those who are new to Venezuelan cuisine, Leon recommends starting with the arepas — round and fluffy cornmeal dough pockets stuffed with savory fillings, which she calls the “bread and butter of Venezuela.” Stuffed with made-from-scratch chickpea-seitan chicken and beef or soy chorizo, El Salto’s arepas come with tostones (twice-fried flattened green plantains), house-made mayo, or guasacaca, an herby cilantro-based condiment that’s traditionally served with barbecued meats. A single arepa makes a good snack, but hungrier customers can build a meal out of several arepas with different fillings.
At times, plantains have been tricky to find in Portland; they’re often halfway between a green plantain or a ripened plantain, which doesn’t work for Leon’s recipes. When she is able to find green plantains, the chef serves Portland’s only vegan Venezuelan patacón: house-made vegan meat fillings, avocado, lettuce, tomato, and shredded mozzarella sandwiched between two large tostones. Ripe plantains, on the other hand, can be used in torta de platáno — a bundt cake with lasagna-like layers of fried ripe plantains, vegan mozzarella, and guava paste — that’s traditionally enjoyed warm with coffee or tea.
El Salto also carries vegan pastelitos de guayaba con queso, a snack made of guava paste, cheese, and fried pastry dough that’s found throughout Latin America. Leon says the sweet-and-savory snack is “a flavor explosion in your mouth.” Other menu items include cheesy arepitas with garlic dipping sauce and flaky ham and cheese empanadas. Once the cart is up and running, Leon plans to add desserts like the ones her mother makes with fresh fruits.
Born and raised in Venezuela, Leon moved to Florida when she was thirteen. When she went vegan at the age of seventeen, her mother created vegan versions of traditional Venezuelan foods to help her feel connected to her home country. “I realized how important it was for me to continue eating the things I grew up with in my new vegan way,” she says.
Today, cooking and sharing food has connected Leon to Portland’s Venezuelan community. She says many Venezuelans and travelers who have visited Venezuela have been looking for places in Portland that carry traditional dishes. “They don’t care that it’s vegan,” she says. “When they compare it to non-vegan Venezuelan food, they’re like, ‘This is amazing! This is the same thing!’”
Although Leon has worked in the service industry since her teens, she was previously slinging drinks as a barista or bartender, not cooking in the kitchen. When Toffee Club closed in December 2022, Leon couldn’t find a new bartending position that was the right fit, so she took the opportunity to start her business.
For a good part of the year, Leon took orders on Instagram, which customers picked up from her house, before landing weekly pop-ups at Secret Roller Disco and Ben & Esther’s. After popping up around town at Coffee Beer, Neighbors Taproom, and Days Away Brewing, to name a few, El Salto settled into the commissary kitchen at Southeast Hawthorne and 10th Avenue as a takeout-only concept.
Later this month, El Salto will take over the Buddy’s Steaks cart at the Bite on Belmont. When vegan cheesesteak maker Buddy Richter decided to close his business, Leon and Cruz were ready to take El Salto to the next level. Leon says it was important for Richter to hand the cart over to a fellow vegan, continuing the Belmont cart’s vegan legacy — Dinger’s Deli and Yoga Chef Jess previously operated out of that cart, too.
As El Salto begins its new chapter as a food cart, Leon hopes that Portland will continue to embrace Venezuelan cuisine. “Come try something new. Never feel weird or embarrassed to ask questions about the food,” she says. “I’m so happy to share my food and culture.”
El Salto will open at the Bite on Belmont food pod at 4255 SE Belmont on September 30.