On the corner of 27th and Alberta, a tall concrete and stucco building has stood for more than 90 years, once home to an electrical substation; throughout the pandemic, it has sat vacant, a quiet landmark on a busy street. Today, it looks far different than it did even a few months ago: Its walls now sport a lovely shade of bubblegum pink, its tall wooden doors a Florida lagoon teal. Palm trees — a rarity in Portland — flank the sides of its concrete steps. Above the door, in neon cursive, a sign reads “Bar Cala.”
There are few bars with a similar aesthetic to Bar Cala in Portland. Its millennial pink walls and rounded blush banquettes are offset by the white stucco and combination concrete-wood floors. Cacti and palm trees give the space a desert-y, tropical feel, as opposed to the darker greens spotted in other plant-filled bars around town. Rattan light shades hang above the bar, the embedded lighting from the arched backbar streaming through the gaps in the weaving. And out on the back patio, string lights illuminate umbrella-shaded tables. With a breezy, cool aesthetic and a talent-packed kitchen and bar, Bar Cala is destined to be a Northeast Portland summer hotspot.
Bar Cala, which opened in late June, comes from Victor Daniel Cerda Zamorano, an Alberta neighborhood resident and Mi Mero Mole alum. For years, Zamorano has walked past the building, back when it was still the Station bar, and felt a twinge to do something with it. Burned out on the restaurant industry during the pandemic, he told himself that he wouldn’t return to food service unless he owned his own place. So when his college friend Fernando Damas — of Damas Painting and Construction — offered to go in on a place with him, they jumped on the Alberta building. And when they tried to figure out a concept for the bar, Zamorano wanted to do something that honored his Chilean heritage and offered something somewhat distinct to the area.
“There are Latin American and Mexican restaurants in Portland, of course, but I wanted a really nice Latin bar,” Zamorano says.
So that’s what they did: Zamorano tapped Autentica alum Mauricio Dimas to cover the food menu, which includes fun hot-weather Mexican dishes like potato-carrot dorados, prickly pear aguachile with rotating seafood, and fish tacos with salsa verde. While the menu hews Mexican, the broader Latin American influence pops up in the restaurant’s steak with chimichurri and grilled octopus with burnt habanero marinade.
Over at the bar, Brian Lucas and Oswaldo Nino Medrano use fresh-squeezed and pressed juices for a number of cocktails using Latin American spirits, including tequila and pisco. Zamorano is particularly happy with the Sandia Es Vida, a blend of Cappelletti, prosecco, watermelon, and grapefruit — a loose play on an Aperol spritz, one of his favorite drinks. One of the bar’s most popular cocktails, La Toxica, almost didn’t make it on the menu; a combination of serrano-infused tequila, watermelon juice, Aperol, and vermouth, it’s become a cult favorite in the bar’s few weeks open.
While the bar’s food and drink derives most of its inspiration from Latin American countries and cuisines, the design of the space is meant to mimic the interior and landscape design of Palm Springs: Desert plants, gold midcentury modern light fixtures, a blend of indoor and outdoor aesthetics. Zamorano enlisted the help of his wife, Jamie Libera, and Damas’s wife, Jody Taylor, to help with the color scheme and furniture. Arium Botanicals handled the plant life. “I like that vintage-y, midcentury vibe, but also something very ‘70s and ‘80s,” Zamorano says. “Most people think we’re going for Miami, with the pink, but it’s inspired by Palm Springs.”
In general, Zamorano wants Bar Cala to feel accessible and relaxed, but also stylish and fun — a place with good food and drinks in the neighborhood he loves. “We don’t want to be super luxury, Michelin star, but not hole-in-the-wall either,” Zamorano says. “We want anyone to be able to hang out here.”
Bar Cala is located at 2703 NE Alberta Street.