¡Oba!’s talented and amiable new chef ups the restaurant’s wow factor
Luis Contreras learned what it takes to become a professional chef during his first kitchen job, at a country club outside San Diego. About the club’s fastidious French chef, Contreras says, “he taught me all the basics, from technique to what kind of commitment it takes to run a professional kitchen. He was very devoted—a bit of a yeller, but he put me on the right path.”
Soft-spoken and quick to flash a humble grin, Contreras is not a yeller. In fact, the executive chef at ¡Oba! (555 NW 12th Ave, 503-228-6161, obarestaurant.com) proves that you can be a nice guy and still run a tight kitchen. “Shouting never worked for me,” he says with a soft laugh. “I see the restaurant as a family, a team—you have to get your point across sometimes, but you also should be caring and compassionate.”
Having moved here last fall with his wife, Corrine, who’s earning her master’s at Lewis & Clark College, Contreras has revamped the menu of this stellar and stylish Nuevo Latino restaurant that’s been a fixture in the Pearl for nearly 20 years. Previously, he helmed a pair of critically lauded regional Mexican restaurants in San Francisco—Mamacita and Padrecito.
His culinary roots date to his childhood in Guadalajara, where his late grandmother operated a restaurant. “I used to help out in the kitchen,” he says. “I can trace most of my inspiration to her, including many of my sauces—which I adapted from her recipes—like the guajillo chile salsa I use for braised-chicken tacos.”
“I see the restaurant as a family, a team—you have to get your point across sometimes, but you also should be caring and compassionate.”
Taking the reins at ¡Oba! has afforded Contreras the opportunity to explore other cuisines he appreciates as well. “I know more now about Peruvian and Argentinian food,” he says, adding that one of his favorite current dishes is the churrasco-style hanger steak with chimichurri. “It’s very straightforward, which allows the meat to stand out.” Among desserts, he recommends the Mexican-style churros, served with Ibarra chocolate that’s been reduced to a sublimely thick sauce with just a hint of spice.
Contreras sources locally as much as possible (“we really serve Northwest-influenced Latin food,” he says), and favors from-scratch preparation—under his watch, the restaurant has begun making its own tortillas and empanadas from house-made corn masa. He also continues to expand the menu’s parameters by testing more adventuresome fare, such as a platter of wonderfully complex and hearty rabbit tamales with goat cheese and Muscovy duck breast with wild rice, brussels sprouts, and a kicky apple-habanero reduction. He plans to add goat barbacoa tacos soon.
Upscale but unpretentious, ¡Oba! comprises two big interior spaces, plus a few sidewalk tables out front. There’s the romantic main dining room, with boldly painted walls, twinkly lights strung across the ceiling, and a mix of deep, cozy booths and elegant dark-wood tables, and the festive front bar with hammered coppertop tables and large windows that let in plenty of light.
The bar enjoys one of Portland’s most devoted happy-hour followings. “We put a lot of effort into this menu, which we rolled out earlier this year,” says Contreras. “You can make a meal of two or three small plates.” Bargains abound, from $5 braised–pork shoulder arepas to $7 ahi tuna crudo with an emulsion of aji mirasol chiles and agave. This bustling room is also where adept mixologist Jeremy Brochue continues to fine-tune the restaurant’s excellent cocktail program, which includes fresh-fruit (Oregon marionberry, blood orange) margaritas and a mescal-grapefruit paloma that Contreras is a huge fan of.
Thinking back to his childhood, the cordial chef imagines what his late grandmother might say about his culinary approach at ¡Oba! “She’d be proud,” he says with a warm smile, “even though the food I’m cooking isn’t exactly traditional. And I know she’d really appreciate how many dried chiles we use in our masa.” – Andrew Collins | Photos by Aubrie Legault