By Lillian Lema  | Photos by Liany Media

Among the cobblestone streets, red brick buildings, charming boutiques, and fishing piers of Portland nestles a hidden restaurant gem – Sal De La Tierra – where Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Salvadorian quick bites meet. Located at 581 Congress Street, it is not just another trendy restaurant, but an eating place dedicated to community and tradition. And where some restaurants provide comfort food, others introduce new tastes, and yet others satisfy the desire for a nostalgic ambience, Sal De La Tierra provides all three.  


“What we don’t have, we invent,” joked owners Isai Galvez and Juan Carlos Gutearrez Sanchez.  

Owners Isai Galvez and Juan Carlos Gutearrez Sanchez met in Maine.  

 “What we don’t have, we invent,” joked owners Isai Galvez and Juan Carlos Gutearrez Sanchez.  

Galvez grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a Puerto Rican mother and a Salvadorian father. At age 7, the family relocated to Portland, where Galvez finished his studies and eventually graduated from Kaplan University with a degree in criminal justice.  

Sanchez was born in Michoacan, Mexico, and at age 15 he moved with family members to the U.S. He spent time in Portland, then moved to Chicago and to Texas to work in restaurants before deciding to finally settle back in Portland in 2014, after getting married.  

The two  met while playing soccer at Kennedy Park. They kept running into one another, found they had mutual friends, and both attended El Sinai, a Christian church.  

At the time, Sanchez was running a Mexican food business out of his home, and Galvez was working at his father’s construction business, Ben & Sons. Sanchez would provide lunch for Galvez and his men, which they all very much enjoyed.  

Both men have experience in the restaurant business, and decided to become business partners and open up their own restaurant. They both fully trusted each other and, based on their professional backgrounds, both felt they were the right complement for one another. They knew the demands and pressures it takes to run a restaurant, and both have an entrepreneurial mindset.  

“In my mind, I knew I wanted to own,” Sanchez said. “I like being a business guy because there is always an opportunity to expand.”  

Ben & Sons had painted the home of the owners of Wild Burritos, the previous restaurant located at 581 Congress Street. First, Galvez tried getting Sanchez a management role at Wild Burrito as a “way in.” However, when Galvez talked to the management, they told him that Wild Burrito was opening up a second location, and they were planning to keep both locations open. 

“I told them that seemed a bit difficult, and asked, ‘Why don’t you sell me this one?’ ” he said. At first, the owners said no, but Galvez was very persistent, and eventually they agreed on a deal.  

“They wanted to keep it within people they knew,” he said. “They met Carlos, and they really liked him.” 

Galvez and Sanchez spent two months renovating the restaurant and changing the Wild Burrito aesthetic. They had expected to open the restaurant by May 2020, but due to the pandemic they were obliged to push back their opening date until August, when they finally received a permit from the city of Portland. Despite the delay, Galvez and Sanchez were required to pay rent for the first four months, with no revenue at all coming in. Luckily, both men were working at Ben & Sons, which helped them pay the restaurant’s bills.   

But even during the lockdown phase of the pandemic, there was never a moment where the owners felt like backing out of their new business venture. They said they put their trust and faith in God and one another, and knew things would work out.  

Their biggest challenge was the masks. Cooking with masks was difficult due to the heat produced in the kitchen, but they feel fortunate that was their only big challenge during such a difficult time in the community.  

Business has been good since they opened. They have catered to their customer base, and receive lots of foot traffic and phone orders, and offer delivery services by Car Hop.  

The men wanted their menu to be inspired by quality taste and consumer preferences, and to be conducive to fast dining. The menu consists of empanadas, burritos, pupusas, dishes with pernil, pork chops, beef, the occasional soup of the day, and desserts including flan and tembleque. They include three to four dishes each from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and El Salvador.  

“It’s fast food with a homey feeling,” Sanchez said. He added that because of their location, many of their clientele are locals on a lunch break, who need to get their food as quickly as possible, as well as tourists looking for quick bites.  

“Any dish on the menu doesn’t take more than 10 minutes to prepare,” Sanchez said.  

“Kinda like a Chipotle thing, but the quality is better,” joked Galvez.  

One of Sal de la Tierra’s staple dishes is El Montañero (the mountain), which consists of rice, fried egg, beef, chicharon (fried pork belly), plantains, red beans, and a salad. One bite  fills the mouth with an explosion of tastes from the tomato sauce, adobo, and homemade sofrito, as well as the beef. The crunch from the chicharon and plantains adds texture, while the egg yolk and beans allow the sauce to expand deeper into the taste buds. The salad keeps things light.  

And the Mexican tacos are authentic. The Tacos de Pernil (pork tacos) are juicy and flavorful. The pork is seasoned one day ahead with homemade sofrito, garlic, and adobo, and roasted on the day of serving. There is no flour tortilla option because true tacos come with corn tortillas. Then, the pernil is topped with onions, cilantro, guacamole, mozzarella cheese, and a side of lime. All these ingredients eaten together create a party in the mouth. 

Entering Sal de la Tierra feels like going to eat at a favorite Latin restaurant on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, N.Y. The restaurant’s simple black, white, and red color scheme gives it a relaxed, casual feel. In addition, two televisions on either side of the restaurant entertain customers.  

But it isn’t the decoration that attracts customers to Sal de la Tierra – it’s the smell of the spice combination that creates nostalgic vibes and a sense of home.

But it isn’t the decoration that attracts customers to Sal de la Tierra – it’s the smell of the spice combination that creates nostalgic vibes and a sense of home.  

The moment customers step into the restaurant they are greeted by Sanchez or Galvez. The dynamic between the men is like two uncles at a family gathering, cooking in the kitchen, and all the while making jokes and sharing entertaining commentary.  

“People feel at home, you come home, and grab your drink…we have the game on,” Sanchez said. They plan to broadcast the FIFA World Cup 2022 games this summer.   

I want people to say, ‘I had a good time, and it reminds me of home.

— Juan Carlos Gutearrez Sanchez

The two appreciate the community’s positive response to their business.  

“At the beginning, we had only 300 followers on our Facebook page – now we have 1,000!” Sanchez said. 

And they are constantly exchanging food with other local businesses on Congress Street, including Starbucks employees, Otto’s Pizza, and even Harmon’s Flower Company. On most Mondays, Harmon’s arranges a bouquet of flowers for them. These bouquets are placed on the cash register counter for customers to enjoy as they enter the restaurant.    

The men’s love for their profession, their neighbors, and their community nourishes their passions and are key components to their success.  

“Dedication, responsibility, and passion are important to have for what you do because without it, it’s difficult,” Sanchez advises other entrepreneurs.  

As the restaurant continues to gain popularity and repeat customers, Sanchez and Galvez hope to expand to other locations.  

Galvez chose the name, Sal de la Tierra (Salt of the Land), with inspiration from the Bible verse Matthew 5:13. Both men are Christian and very faithful to their religion. 

“Food without salt doesn’t work. It goes unseen, but it’s necessary. Without salt, there is no flavor, so be salt! We don’t want to be famous. We want to add flavor (salt) to the community,” Galvez explained. 

“I want this place to be something people remember, and not just the food,” Sanchez added. “I want people to say, ‘I had a good time, and it reminds me of home.’ ”