Northeast Portland Neighborhoods

Mama Leo’s in Roseway: Where two friends focus on familiar foods

Diana Delima prepares vegetables for evening meals at Mama Leo’s, one of Portland’s few restaurants featuring Caribbean food. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday, but the owners hope to expand to Sundays in mid-2014. (Janet Goetze)

Diana Delima prepares vegetables for evening meals at Mama Leo’s, one of Portland’s few restaurants featuring Caribbean food. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday, but the owners hope to expand to Sundays in mid-2014. (Janet Goetze)

By Janet Goetze
For the Hollywood Star News

For years, Diana Delima’s daughter and Carolina Blanco’s son told the two friends to open a business together and have it related to food.

Last spring, the women followed that advice and opened Mama Leo’s at 6729 N.E. Sandy Blvd.

It is one of Portland’s few restaurants serving the foods of Colombia and Venezuela, their native lands. Because the home cooking of South America relies on corn- and rice-based dishes, most of the menu is gluten-free, too.

The women spent a year planning their business and divided responsibilities according to their talents. Delima is the chef and Blanco works with people and the cash register in the dining room.

Delima, a bookkeeper for many local Hispanic businesses, had never worked as a chef. However, said Blanco, “She knows how to put flavors together. She has that skill.”

Blanco has had administrative responsibilities at Portland Community College (PCC), including a program for students earning GEDs, and she has taught Spanish.

During their planning period, the pair worked on recipes to make sure they could present familiar foods at their best. That includes queso blanco frito, or fried white cheese, served with hogao, a sauce of tomatoes and onions. Corn meal pockets, some filled with meat, chicken or cheese, are on the menu. Coconut rice is a side dish that gives the grain a flavor new to North American palates. Plantains, a low-sugar member of the banana family, are available as sweet or savory.

The entrees include tilapia fillet in coconut sauce, oven-roasted chicken and several beef selections. Vegetarian and vegan dishes are on the menu, too. Soups are on the daily menu, and Saturday specials include a chicken and vegetable stew and a slow-cooked Colombian beef stew.

The soups, Blanco said, are especially popular with South American customers.

“They come and say, ‘It tastes like my grandma made,’” she said.

The restaurant’s name is in remembrance of Delima’s mother, Leonor. She died young and is fondly remembered by friends and family, who called her Mama Leo, pronounced in Spanish as Lay-oh.

Blanco and Delima, who met as neighbors in Venezuela about 20 years ago, know that restaurants take a while to become self-sustaining. For that reason, Delima continues to keep clients’ books on Sundays and Mondays, when the restaurant is closed, and sometimes after 9 p.m. when she returns to her home in the Cully neighborhood. Blanco, who lives in North Portland near Columbia Park, leaves PCC in the late afternoon to work at the restaurant until the 9 p.m. closing. They have assistance from four part-time employees.

Although their business is less than a year old, the two friends already are extending service into the community. In December, they collected non-perishable food and children’s winter clothing as part of the Grand Worldwide Hallacazo, a Venezuelan holiday tradition to aid local families with limited resources, Blanco said.

That endeavor would be reason enough to support the restaurant, said Paula Casner, a Roseway neighborhood resident who has worked with low-income families. However, she also has celiac, the auto-immune condition requiring a gluten-free diet. She discovered the restaurant one evening when rush-hour traffic slowed on Sandy Boulevard and she looked up from the road to see the sign noting gluten-free food. Now, she said, “I eat here all the time.”

Carol Suelzle, who also has celiac, said she can order nearly anything on the menu. She added, “This is the best gluten-free food we’ve ever had.”

For Erika Abad, who grew up in Chicago with parents from the Caribbean, the restaurant offers flavors she rarely finds in Portland. She ordered savory plantain and fried yuca served with a cream sauce.

“I’m hungry for the things I usually have,” she said, then she took a bite of the yuca. “I’m in heaven right now,” Abad said, closing her eyes to savor the flavor.

Caribbean Cuisine
What: Mama Leo’s restaurant, featuring home cooking from Venezuela and Colombia
Where: 6728 N.E. Sandy Blvd.
Owners: Carolina Blanco and Diana Delima
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday.
Contact: (503) 284-2033; mamaleosrestaurant.com

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