Gado Gado chef Thomas Pisha-Duffly rediscovered his heritage on vacation. After years cooking in New England under major players like Barbara Lynch, the chef and his partner, Mariah Pisha-Duffly, took a trip to Indonesia, the country where his grandmother grew up. It wasn’t until he was there that he realized he recognized what he was eating. “I went, ‘Oh, yeah, this is my food,’” he remembers, scrambling to finish his restaurant space before the impending opening on Monday. The flavors of Indonesia — fried shallots, galangal, “stink bean”, and kecap manis — brought the chef back to his childhood, growing up with his grandmother’s Indonesian and Chinese cooking.
More than a decade later, the Pisha-Dufflys are recreating those flavors in their first Portland restaurant, Gado Gado, one of 2019’s most highly anticipated. The city is already familiar with the couple’s chewy noodle bowls, fragrant rice dishes, and left-field surprises, thanks to their buzzy pop-up of the same name. After months of building the restaurant, Gado Gado finally opens tonight, June 3, complete with quilt-like recipes combining the chef’s New England upbringing, grandmother’s cooking, and laissez-faires spirit.
The restaurant itself pulls from the couple’s background, from the Indonesian carving serving as a back bar to the tchotchkes scattered throughout the space. Much of the restaurant’s intricate design, tiles, and pastels pull from Peranakan architecture, referring to a population of Chinese immigrants who moved to Southeast Asia. Still, the space is a far cry from the traditional construction spotted in Singapore, and the Pisha-Dufflys are happy with that. “We mess around with things, so it’s really playful,” says Mariah Pisha-Duffly, who designed much of the space. “I wanted to go in the opposite direction of the minimal restaurant. It’s big and busy and really bright.”
The design is pretty reflective of Thomas Pisha-Duffly’s culinary identity: goofy but rooted in his personal background, be that from his years at restaurants like Boston’s Sportello or meals of his grandmother’s aromatic rice. “There’s a lot of what we’re doing now that’s inspired by stuff I ate growing up with my mother and my grandmother. Then, it didn’t have as big of an effect on me. There was stuff that I ate that no one else was eating,” he says. “When I got into food, it was a way I could connect with my mother.”
Pisha-Duffly went on to cook for New England big-names like Barbara Lynch (No. 9 Park) and Arlin Smith (Eventide Oyster Company), but after working in Maine, the chef was burning out. “I just decided that I was going to be done,” he says. “I kind of had this crisis of faith.” He and Mariah Pisha-Duffly booked their trip to Indonesia, and the chef got his groove back. The two of them began sorting through his grandmother’s recipes, adapting them for a pop-up in Portland, Maine called Family Feast. Soon afterward, the two helped open The Honey Paw, Eater Maine’s 2015 Restaurant of the Year, pulling from some of the same inspiration. Eventually, the two decided to head west, grabbing gigs at Pok Poks, Coquine, and Han Oak before starting their hit pop-up.
Now, Gado Gado’s menu ranges from the somewhat traditional to the off-the-wall, from beef rendang to blood-sausage corn dogs, with house-made breads and a number of non-alcoholic (and yes, boozy) cocktails. Even in the seven weeks since the restaurant released its opening menus, things have changed: For instance, the namesake dish, an assortment of often steamed vegetables with peanut sauce, swaps the original spinach and green beans for charred red onion, snap peas, and fermented radish. The restaurant loses its foie gras and duck wontons, instead going for a third of a rack of smoked char siu ribs. And instead of serving an Indonesian noodle and meatball soup, mie bakso, the chef is bring back his chicken bakmi, a yellow noodle served with a mushroom ragu and chicken liver. “I don’t rest on my laurels, which means I tend to change things a lot,” the chef says. “But hopefully people get it. We can sit in here and dial and tweak every little thing but it’s going to taste like a science experiment.”
At any given moment, these dishes may change, though there are a few consistencies any visitor can bet on: the Pisha-Dufflys want Gado Gado to be a group affair, from large-format cocktails to whole Dungeness crab with salted egg sauce. The chef is particularly excited about an elaborate whole duck that’s cured overnight, rubbed inside out with coconut cream, smoked for two hours, wrapped in banana leaf, roasted, and then fried and glazed to order. It’s a take on bebek betutu, a classic Balinese dish. It goes really well with the aromatic rice, just like oma used to make.
Gado Gado is located at 1801 NE Cesar E Chavez.
• Gado Gado [Official]
• Previous Gado Gado coverage [EPDX]
• Updated Gado Gado opening menus [Official]
• Portland’s Most Anticipated Restaurant Openings in 2019 [EPDX]
• Blood Sausage Corn Dogs Are Coming to Northeast Portland [EPDX]
• Previous Honey Paw coverage [Eater Maine]