What makes a pop-up “one to watch” in Portland? not just an ephemeral food rave, but the project most likely to evolve into a true brick-and-mortar gem?
Sure signs: whispers around town of a new talent, bootstrapping status, bumping playlists, some weird-ass dishes, and, critically, a network of industry folks who lend their spaces and stamps of approval.
Welcome to Gado Gado, the one to watch in 2019. (Editor's Note: In mid-January, after this issue had gone to press, Gado Gado landed a brick-and-mortar home in the Hollywood neighborhood, expected to open in April.) The surefire indicators are all here, including a following among Portland’s live-to-eat diners. For the past year, at spots like Langbaan and Expatriate, patrons have squished together at tables, excitedly offering “tasting bites” of their half-eaten dishes to strangers within fork’s reach. Inevitably, someone bursts into singsong praise—“I l-o-v-e Portland’s food scene!”—as if we’re in a Disney Channel musical. Dishes might be great, almost great, or simply ... interesting. But the vibe feels real and right.
For chef Thomas Pisha-Duffly and his wife, Mariah (Gado Gado’s front woman and music commander), the M.O. is noodle-centric and Southeast Asian–perfumed, seasoned with a healthy dose of “what the hell, we’re having fun.” Influences include Thomas’s family recipes (his half-Chinese mother grew up in Indonesia), Italian techniques gleaned under Boston legend Barbara Lynch, and top chef duties at Portland, Maine’s New York Times–blessed “nondenominational noodle bar” Honey Paw.
So far, each Gado Gado menu is different, befitting a project whose Indonesian name roughly translates as “mix mix.” A wild congee breakfast bar arrived one summer morning at Guilder Café. Halloween detoured into Chinese-sausage bing sandwiches, cotton candy, and pumpkin baos. November went prix fixe Balinese: peanut-sauced gado gado salad, spicy laksa soup, and, best, a makrut-lime-thrashing banana leaf and smoked duck salad rippling with crispy skin.
Gado Gado’s current iteration, a “late-night noodle joint” hosted at east-side sando shop Sammich, kicks off at 9 p.m. every Thursday. Old-school hip-hop booms as Sammich’s funny, foul-mouthed pastrami impresario, Melissa McMillan, shakes margaritas and shouts out celebratory hooahs every time an off-duty chef walks in, which is frequently. In the kitchen, Thomas is wok-frying something inventive, perhaps a sambal-rocking fever dream of East Coast “Sunday Gravy” complete with smoked ham hock ragù, house-made rice noodles, and pork-bellied clam meatballs. February’s lineup includes an anti-Valentine night inspired by Mariah’s waitress days in a Boston punk rock bar.
Plans for a Gado Gado brick-and-mortar are simmering, and we’re gambling it will click. But it’s always possible that we’re seeing peak Gado Gado right now. As Thomas points out: “What makes a pop-up exciting is to experience something new, in the moment. You might never see it again, but that’s cool.”