Restaurant Review

At Nightingale, Chef Luna Contreras Celebrates Mexican Street Food While Championing Identity and Community

The menu hearkens back to happy memories of Contreras's grandmother, with antojitos like flautas and gorditas at the center.

By Katherine Chew Hamilton Photography by Thomas Teal May 27, 2021 Published in the Summer 2021 issue of Portland Monthly

Chef Luna Contreras 

Image: Thomas Teal

The tiniest cubes of mango tickle the tongue atop crisp, carnitas-style duck tacos sweetened with guava chutney on fluffy corn tortillas, smeared with silky black beans and flanked by sharp watercress. On a charming heated patio, guests sip quirkily named cocktails like Lou Reed’s Leather Jacket or Heaven Is Whenever, a punchy-pink mezcal margarita mixing up blood orange, cinnamon, and artichoke. Inside, dimly lit with flickering candles, are simple wooden tables for spaced-out diners, the faint singing of Natalia Lafourcade in the background, and bare walls waiting for guest artists to showcase Mexican folk art.

Potato flautas and a seasonal salad

Image: Thomas Teal

Welcome to the world of Nightingale, which chef Luna Contreras and co-owner and bartender Chris Mateja opened on NE 28th’s restaurant row last December. Contreras melds her love for Mexican street food with a passion for seasonal vegetables, learned while staging at the famed Chez Panisse and honed as the chef at critically acclaimed San Francisco restaurants Mamacita and Padrecito. It’s a personal narrative successfully told through food.

To understand Nightingale’s roots, we journey to Jalisco, where Contreras was born and lived until age 10. Her father wasn’t around, and her mother was a teacher on assignment in rural Mexico for months at a time. So Contreras spent lots of time with her grandmother, Chelo, helping out at her fonda, or neighborhood eatery, serving tacos, tostadas, pozole, and birria.

Her reward: accompanying Chelo to the centro’s markets in Guadalajara to eat every street food imaginable. “All the mariscos ... tacos de canasta, the tacos al vapor,” she says. “That was one of the things I always looked forward to.”

Nightingale’s menu hearkens back to happy memories, with street food–inspired antojitos at the center. Don’t miss the gorditas—fragrant, nutty, toasty fried masa shells like the ones you’d find on street corners in Mexico, but instead showcasing locally sourced shiitakes, maitakes, and oyster mushrooms with earthy kale.

Nightingale’s mushroom-kale gorditas, duck carnitas tacos, and yucca fries

Image: Thomas Teal

Potato flautas are also a must-try—crunchy-shelled comfort like the taquitos Contreras loved at the markets growing up. Her twist: caramelized, melty leeks inside, local little gem lettuce on top. Guajillo salsa just like Grandma Chelo’s brings the flavors home—cooked down until velvety, tinged with toasty piloncillo sugar.

These dishes are only part of Nightingale’s story. Growing up, Contreras knew she was trans. Her father didn’t accept her identity, and her mother took time to come around. But Chelo, who has since passed away, wholly embraced her.

“My grandma was really cool with it, but my mom and dad, they were not—especially my dad,” she recalls. “I would sleep in my grandma’s room to feel safe.”

A key part of Nightingale’s mission: to be a safe space for women, people of color, and trans people, from staff to the broader community. Above the restaurant’s dining room is a couch, open to women and trans people escaping violence and abuse. On Instagram, Contreras talks directly to the camera about her struggles as a trans woman and her journey since starting hormone replacement therapy last spring, shortly before Nightingale’s opening. Trans teenagers have DMed her for advice, and Contreras is always happy to talk. “Money isn’t everything—but identity is,” Contreras says.

The patio at Nightingale.

Image: Thomas Teal

She and Mateja named the restaurant Nightingale—a tiny, plain-looking brown bird that only comes out at night, but with a beautiful song. “I hid for many years,” Contreras says. She was nervous about opening a restaurant as a trans woman, but the community has been supportive, both of her business and her identity. Customers flooded the restaurant with takeout orders after its outdoor structure was demolished by February’s snowstorm and needed to be rebuilt. Staff from neighboring restaurant Navarre have walked her to her car at night after work.

Meanwhile, Contreras never takes her foot off the gas in the kitchen. The botanas, or snacks, lean heavily on vegetables, which get the royal treatment. Contreras’s yucca fries are a labor of love: boiled, mashed yucca with the stringy bits removed, then mixed with cream and plenty of paprika, frozen, and cut into sticks. Each gets dredged in buttermilk and corn flour, rolled in blue and yellow corn grits, and deep-fried to an impossible crackle. Dip them in tangy goat-milk-and-buttermilk crema tinged green with epazote, or thick, spicy sikil pak, a pumpkin-seed dip with Contreras’s Mediterranean twist of olive oil and red pepper.

Co-owner and bartender Chris Mateja pours a drink.

Image: Thomas Teal

Along with street food, the story of Nightingale is best told in exceptional desserts. Tres leches cake, fluffy and delicately sweet, arrives with cheery seasonal garnishes like pomegranate seeds. Chocoflan—coffee-infused chocolate cake topped with jiggly custard—is fudgy and decadent. House-made ice cream rivals any scoop shop in town, with cheeky, nostalgia-fueled flavors like chocolate cookie dough amped up with chile-laden Ancho Reyes liqueur.

Baking has been Contreras’s therapeutic outlet lately. (Many of us can probably relate.) Every Tuesday, she’ll tinker for hours, blasting punk tunes by Face to Face and the indie crooning of the Weakerthans. The ritual, she says, helps keep her happy, focused, and playful—a change she noticed as soon as she began hormone replacement therapy.

“It was just an immediate switch. I felt confident, and I felt powerful, and something vibrant was awoken.” And Contreras’s cooking is noticeably different now. “I can do things and not feel like I should be judged,” she says. “I’ve felt a deeper connection and a more grounded approach to flavor. Much more vibrancy. Being happy truly has changed me.”