For more than a decade, Tortilleria y Tienda de Leon's has been the subject of almost cultish devotion, a hidden treasure at the exact border between Portland and Gresham whose name was passed on like a totem from food lover to food lover. The best Mexican food in town, they'd say. Have you been?
Tucked into a Northeast Glisan Street strip mall whose marquee announces the presence of "CSL Plasma," it's easy to miss. And until recently, even when you walked into the shop, you wouldn't see what made it so special. But Portland's greatest guisados are finally stepping into the daylight.
In February, de Leon manager Lucy de Leon renovated the 17-year-old shop and put the food counter in its rightful place. The restaurant serving her family's recipes is now the first thing to greet anyone coming into the store—the citric cochinita pibil from the Yucatan, carnitas that rank among the most tender and lovely anywhere near Portland, and the meltingly spicy pork nopales.
For dedicated local food lovers, de Leon is hardly a secret. Naomi Pomeroy, the James Beard Award-winning chef at Beast, is a fan of the nopales salad. Rodney Muirhead—chef at WW's 2011 Restaurant of the Year, Podnah's Pit—is a longtime lover of de Leon's guisados, Mexican stews braised for hours and served with tortillas.
You can order off the chalkboard, sure. But it's better to just peer into the deli case and order whatever looks best. Depending on who's working that day, there are special stews that never make it onto any menu. Each can be had for under $10 on a plate with rice, beans, fresh-made tortillas and salsa.
Related: Portland's Best Local Mexican Spots
After taking a class at Portland Community College to learn how to start the business, Lucy de Leon has also begun selling her family's salsas at New Seasons under the name Salsas Locas—and her tamales now show up in that store's cold case. Killer Burger, Portland's finest burger chain, asks de Leon to cater all of its holiday parties. Robo Taco and Muirhead's La Taq both use her tortillas for their tacos. Meanwhile, customers who've heard about the shop have begun making pilgrimages from Astoria or British Columbia just to eat her food.
It's a long way from where the de Leon family started.
When she was young, says Lucy de Leon, now 37, she often slept in a car.
Originally from the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas, her father, Anselmo, worked the fields all across America as a migrant farmer. Every place they went, her mother, Lusdivina, sold tamales and other foods to workers in the fields.
"Oregon was the last state we stayed in," says de Leon, who was born in the U.S. after her parents gained their citizenship in the '70s. "My father always had a dream of having his own tortilla place, and so he sold his house."
She's speaking in front of a massive and colorful mural—painted by her nephew Mario, whom she helped raise as her own—that depicts the family's history, from Mexico to the fields to their arrival in Portland. On a graffiti-tagged sign marking the store's location at the corner of Northeast 162nd Avenue and Glisan Street, Mario has drawn his own shoe hanging from the pole: a tatty Chuck Taylor All-Star.
But now, Lucy de Leon says she's considering expanding from that address to a more central Portland location, in a city whose options for authentic Mexican food are often very slim west of 102nd Avenue.
"When I bring my kids downtown," she says, "I hate to say it, but I go to Robo Taco."
GO: Tortilleria y Tienda de Leon, 16223 NE Glisan St., 503-255-4356, salsaslocas.com.