When Regi Carter stumbled across an ad for a yet-to-open cocktail bar seeking a beverage director, it serendipitously aligned with what she was already working on: cocktails with Southeast Asian flavors. Born in the Philippines, Carter sailed around the world when she was 18, making stops at almost every Southeast Asian country. Her creations are a personal representation of her experiences.
Similarly, Indian American chef and restaurateur Sanjay Chandrasekaran has offered his singular perspective on Indian cuisine at The Sudra for the past decade. Together, they join forces with Lightning Bar Collective and Design Department to create a tropical oasis at the corner of Fremont and Mississippi. XO Bar will open its doors later this month — though it will offer a teaser popup during the Mississippi Street Fair on July 15.
XO Bar’s fully vegan menu consists of craft drinks and bar snacks with a Southeast Asian twist. The menu includes cocktails made with coconut oil-washed rum, Thai tea, and Vietnamese coffee, often pulling from an island-inspired culinary canon. For instance, there’s a play on an Old Fashioned that involves a smoked coconut ice cube; as the ice melts, the rich, smoky flavors of Don Papa dark rum will evolve into something more tropical. Carter is also bringing her idea of a “happy, crushable summer patio drink” to life with cucumber, mint, jasmine, lychee liqueur, passionfruit-infused gin, and Prosecco. Wine and nonalcoholic beverages will be available, as well.
While many Portlanders are familiar with pineapple and papaya, the drinks will involve other Southeast Asian fruits, like durian and mangosteen, that Carter hasn’t seen in bar menus around town. Durian will make an appearance in a rum slushie with guayabana, pineapple, and coconut, whereas mangosteen joins Creme de Cassis and butterfly pea gin in a rosy-hued cocktail. She also incorporates ingredients, like sugar snap peas and pink peppercorn, that are commonly associated with savory applications, in the cocktails. Much of her inspiration, Carter says, comes from the flavors she encountered in Madagascar, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, and Southeastern China.
To pair with Carter’s whimsical creations, Chandrasekaran developed small plates, like jalapeno-cream cheese wontons with citrus agave, miso curry Brussels sprouts, and barbecue sambal vegan drumsticks. Larger items include sesame ginger soy curls with black rice, tempura-battered “chicken” sandwiches, and rice noodles with deep fried misozuke tofu and kombu-mushroom broth. For dessert, the chef will serve tempura-battered banana with peanut sauce, toasted hazelnuts, pickled ginger, and vanilla ice cream. While there are some Sudra influences throughout the menu, like the jackfruit vindaloo spring rolls, Chandrasekaran says XO is intended to be a bar, not a restaurant. “I don’t want people to think this is the Sudra guy opening another restaurant,” he says.
But the food and drinks are only part of the experience. Ben Hufford, who is a partner of the Lightning Bar Collective and Design Department, is another creative mastermind behind XO. Diners may recognize his work from iconic spaces like Screen Door and Scotch Lodge, as well as other LBC establishments, including Victoria Bar just up the road.
Hufford designed XO Bar to be transportive: When you walk through the door, you’re entering a mini-vacation resort with moody leafy wallpaper, rattan chairs, pastel pink bar tile, plants hanging from baskets, and greenery creeping along ceiling trellises. The architect created a tropical oasis to eat, drink, and relax, but leaves room for the visitor’s imagination, as well. “It’s magical when you walk through the door,” he says. “When you’re inside, you could be anywhere… it’s not meant to be specific.”
This project marks Carter’s return to the Portland food industry from the East Coast, working in hospitality at The Roundhouse in Beacon, New York and nightclubs, such as Karma and Buddha Lounge, in New York City. Before that, she worked as a bartender at Radar and in the kitchens at Deschutes Brewery and pFriem Family Brewers. Meanwhile, Chandrasekaran, a longtime vet of the Portland restaurant world, is behind many vegan restaurants past and present: Sonny Bowl, The Sudra, Rabbits, Aviv, Lilla, and Daylily Coffee Shop.
XO Bar occupies the space that was previously the North Portland outpost of vegan Indian restaurant The Sudra up until the end of April 2023. Although The Sudra has been a vegan mainstay in Portland since 2013, that particular location never fully gained momentum, according to its owner. Chandrasekaran attributes that partly due to timing — it opened shortly before the city went into pandemic lockdown in 2020 — and partly due to the specificity of a fully vegan Indian restaurant. “There really only needs to be one Sudra,” he says. “It’s more of a destination restaurant, not a neighborhood restaurant.”
Although most Portlanders have resumed dining out over the last couple years, Hufford says the post-pandemic restaurant market has changed: In his mind, Portland’s dining scene is currently driven by people looking for cute bars. On top of Chandrasekaran’s food menu and Carter’s bar program, Hufford hopes XO’s tropical vacation ambiance will help draw a crowd to the southern end of Mississippi — in the same way that Victoria Bar has grown into a bustling hotspot at the other end of the neighborhood.
XO Bar will open at 906 N Fremont Street in late July.