Walking down Northwest 23rd, a blue light hums quietly above a short flight of stairs, a subtle beacon luring passersby to the unmarked door below. There’s no posted sign, no indication of what’s behind the door; that’s exactly how Co Ngan and Dat Truong — the people behind Northwest Portland’s speakeasy-vibed cocktail bar, Grandma’s Secret — want it.
Once inside, Grandma’s Secret isn’t meant to evoke images of prohibition-era speakeasies found throughout the United States; rather, it’s a reflection of the underground bars in Ho Chi Minh City during the French colonization of Vietnam. The subterranean space is packed with tropical plants, bamboo, rattan, and leather furniture, cocktails served in Ngan’s vintage glassware. As a teenager and young adult, Ngan — best known as the chef of Northwest Portland’s Lela’s Bistro — would sneak out at night to visit similar speakeasy-style bars throughout Ho Chi Minh City’s theater district, a.k.a. the Bến Nghé neighborhood. When he opened Grandma’s Secret in February 2023, Truong wanted to create an homage to Ngan, a longtime family friend, celebrating her sense of curiosity and adventure in a space reminiscent of her youth.
When Lela’s Bistro opened in 2011, it was a way to show off Ngan’s culinary prowess and family recipes. The restaurant, located in a converted home on Northwest 23rd and Raleigh, serves Vietnamese dishes like pho, banh mi, salad rolls, and curries. The restaurant also handles the food at the cocktail bar, focusing on small snacks like salad rolls, pot stickers, tofu fries, and sliders. Many of the ingredients used at Lela’s Bistro end up in Grandma’s Secret cocktails, as well; for example, Grandma’s Twist uses pickled daikon and carrot brine from Lela’s banh mi in lieu of the olive brine in a dirty martini, adding a bit of sweetness and tang.
Vietnam’s complex history also informs the bar’s approach to food and beverage, especially as it relates to intersections of culture. The bar menu draws on Cuban, French, Mexican, Japanese, and South Korean influences paired with Ngan’s Vietnamese pantry staples. For example, the Diplomat blends Cuban cocktail components like ginger and rum with Vietnamese coconut and lime. Similarly, the 23rd Parallel plays off Vietnam’s shared latitudinal position with Mexico, blending mezcal, soursop, muối ớt (a Vietnamese chile salt), and lemongrass. The cocktail menu will change seasonally; however, the Diplomat will remain a staple due to its popularity. Outside of cocktails, the bar exclusively sells Asian beers and French wines.
To find Grandma’s Secret, look for the blue light, which indicates the bar is open. For help finding the space, the staff at Lela’s can set you on the right path. Grandma’s Secret is open Thursday through Saturday at 5 p.m.