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Thomas and Mariah Pisha-Duffly stand next to each other in a pop-up kitchen.
Mariah and Thomas Pisha-Duffly.
Gado Gado

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The Couple Behind Gado Gado and Oma’s Hideaway Will Open a Fantastical Bar on Southeast Clinton

The Houston Blacklight, the latest project from Thomas and Mariah Pisha-Duffly, will serve things like French onion soup ramen and cocktails garnished with Jell-O shrimp in the former Night Light Lounge space

Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

For years, as Thomas and Mariah Pisha-Duffly have opened groundbreaking, nationally significant restaurants around the city, they have struggled to define them. Gado Gado, their first, pulls much of its inspiration from the Indonesian culinary canon, an homage to Thomas Pisha-Duffly’s grandmother’s cooking and heritage. But to call Gado Gado a cut-and-dry Indonesian restaurant would be incorrect; the chef uses his entire professional background — Boston Italian kitchens, a Maine fine dining restaurant — to knock out one-of-a-kind dishes. At Oma’s Hideaway, the couple’s second restaurant, the freewheeling nature of the Pisha-Dufflys became more prominent; while the restaurant was, again, clearly influenced by Chinese and Malaysian cuisines, it’s also a restaurant where someone could eat a Jell-O shot with popping boba, a burger with chile-shrimp jam, or fries smothered in salted egg yolk gravy. At their next spot, a bar opening this spring or summer, they’re avoiding over-categorizing themselves entirely. And for them, that’s a relief.

“We always struggle with the question, ‘What kind of restaurant is this?’” Mariah Pisha-Duffly says. “You don’t seem to have to answer that question at a bar.”

The Houston Blacklight, taking over the former Night Light Lounge space on Southeast Clinton, will be a departure from the Southeast Asian-inflected restaurants the Pisha-Dufflys are known for. Instead, the bar will be cheeky and eclectic, playful and nostalgic, informed by Montreal’s culinary scene, with things like cocktails in martini glasses with jell-O shrimp garnishes, French onion soup ramen, and Rhode Island-style salt-and-pepper squid.

The Pisha-Dufflys grew up in New England, and after moving to Portland, Maine, the couple spent a lot of time in Montreal. They found themselves particularly inspired by Joe Beef, a famously hedonistic, old-school-with-a-wink, French-ish restaurant with international influence. “The sense of respect for tradition but also irreverence really spoke to us,” Mariah Pisha-Duffly says. “You could be indulgent and enjoy all these foods and wines that could be so pretentious, but they are able to keep them fun. That ethos has always been really inspirational to us.”

It’s that energy that will inform the food and beverage at the Houston Blacklight, whether it’s in a bone marrow-brisket burger or a grilled cheese roti with a side of curried tomato soup. The Pisha-Dufflys are quick to emphasize that the menu is still in development, but they’re enjoying the brainstorming process. They’ve played with the idea of several dishes served with bing, or Chinese flatbread, or a full section of raw dishes. In general, however, the couple emphasizes that this menu will be intentionally more informed by comfort foods — “We’re not afraid of doing things that maybe aren’t creative for creativity’s sake, but are delicious and enjoyable,” she says.

“People know this one side of me and Tom, but there’s this other side of me and Tom that people don’t really know,” Mariah Pisha-Duffly says. “There are things we love that don’t really have a home at Gado Gado and Oma’s. It allows us to really have a lot of different types of things on the menu.”

Meanwhile, on the bar side of things, Mariah Pisha-Duffly has been working with beverage director Em Warden to develop a drink menu, dabbling with ideas like house liqueurs, cocktails, slushies, and large-format punches with components like turmeric meringue or salted plum chile salt. The two have been particularly enjoying the idea of using Jell-O molds for over-the-top glassware and garnishes, like the aforementioned “shrimp cocktail” — a late-night idea that she became attached to.

“I was trying to fall asleep, and I couldn’t sleep because I thought it was so funny,” Mariah Pisha-Duffly says. “You know that whole aesthetic of foods served on kale, jell-O molds? I’m all for that.”

The space itself will reflect the nostalgic, somewhat fantastical approach to food and cocktails on the menu. Lauded Portland architect Mark Annen, who worked with restaurants like Le Pigeon and Pok Pok, will help redesign the space, retaining some of the midcentury vibes while adding a weirder, quirkier energy that matches the Pisha-Dufflys. The couple will also work with Kate Blairstone, who designed the wallpaper for both of the couple’s other restaurants, to create something informed by the inspiration for the bar’s name: The Houston Blacklight, a 1960s and ’70s poster company, specialized in that specific brand of fantasy, rock-and-roll blacklight poster many associate with Woodstock-era dorm rooms. Mariah Pisha-Duffly has collected them since she was a teenager; they’ve appeared in the bathrooms at Gado Gado, on the walls of Oma’s. So Blairstone will use creatures featured in those posters — Mastadons and saber-tooth tigers, but also manticores and alicorns — as a jumping-off point.

“Part of what we like about this ’70s fantasy world is this combination of nerd-dom and sexuality,” she says. “The bar won’t be plastered with blacklight posters and copies of Heavy Metal magazine, but those things loom large in my life. This combination of rebellion and intimacy, I’m super stoked for that.”

The Houston Blacklight is set to open in June at 2100 SE Clinton Street.

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