In late May, I meet up with friends at the new Oma's Hideaway on SE Division. We hug. We hoist drinks. Our food arrives on plates. Plates. Yes, our outdoor table is furnished with a plastic BYO tub—as in, bus-your-own dishes.
If this is the New Normal, we're not complaining. We fork into a heap of wonton noodles. Sharing a dish seems dangerous and giddy. The night is already a rousing success. We're here not to judge but to relish the moment, out of our caves.
But we are food people and can't help ourselves. Oma’s is a highly anticipated plunge into Malaysian Chinese barbecue from the folks at the Hollywood neighborhood's Gado Gado, one of Portland’s brightest food lights. And wonton noodles, known to Malaysians as wonton mee, is a bucket-list dish of noodles, Chinese barbecue pork, and pickled green chiles, tossed together at the table.
Our conclusions: Oma's homemade noodles impress, a marvel of spring and chew; the wontons are solid but don’t blow us off our feet. Delicious details pile up quickly—a beautiful hillock of fermented greens, lots of acid-popping hot peppers, a lawn of finely cut scallions. We're officially obsessed with char siu pork, its sticky glaze hiding a secret ingredient: Cherry Coke.
“What the hell? Holy shit,” bellows my Chinese American friend Drew, a food hound supreme. “This is really legit.” Well, except the Cherry Coke.
Another twist rides on top, the kitchen's lava-red chile jam. Swirl it in for a sweet-hot head rush. With this, we bid goodbye to Malaysia's hawker streets and detour into a world that flickers with Indonesian sambals, French sausages, and stoner food fun. Welcome to Oma's, the next chapter in an ongoing personal journey from Thomas and Mariah Pisha-Duffly.
The menu makes room for one of the city's best burgers, its charred patty, shredded lettuce, and melty American cheese perched on a bun griddled with lime leaf coconut butter. The warm-spiced dusting on the crinkle-cut curry fries are supercharged with, of all things, orange Tang. Pork spare rib tips are pure fatty, bone-gnawing pleasure, enveloped in dark fish sauce caramel, chopped herbs, and toasted sticky rice powder. On the side: an electrifying salsa gone rogue, clocked with sambal and fruit.
And somehow, the roti flatbread, a Gado Gado signature, is now even better—more buttery and pull-apart feathery, like a great croissant pancake from the sky. It's the edible we need right now.
My dining posse has hit peak fullness. Like, “where's my muumuu?” full. That doesn't stop us from wolfing down a pandan waffle teeming with fried sweetbreads, asparagus, roasted mushrooms, peanuts, and fried anchovies, all of it dripping rich, sweet beef syrup. Portland's chicken and waffles have been put on notice.
Not everything is perfect—one night's salt-and-pepper Oregon bay shrimp, shells on, was a cool idea in need of more salt and pepper. The soft-shell crab sandwich arrived without life, oomph. Overall, meals fly highest when chef Thomas is cooking, as the kitchen learns the rhythms of his personal, nuanced food. And so far, cocktails, a collaboration with Portland bartender supreme Eric Nelson (Eem, Shipwreck), can be hit and miss. That said, I'm a fool for the Panther's Pajamas, a lush expression of bourbon, mango, and egg white foam.
Still, three visits in, I'm ready to shout from the rooftops: Oma's Hideaway is the most exciting restaurant in Portland right now.
The impulses for all this are hard to define, even for the owners. Oma's aesthetic includes a robot mural, a bar that looks like a disco ball, and vintage light fixtures. The sound system booms with 1970s Indonesian psychedelic rock and funk.
The north star is Oma herself, Thomas's grandmother, Kiong Tien “Tina” Vandenberg, who was born of Chinese descent and raised in Indonesia and, later, Malaysia. She is the house muse of Gado Gado, famous for singular Indonesian-Chinese-ish food that is part Oma, part Thomas's boundary-shredding food mind.
The Pisha-Dufflys considered spinning Gado's greatest hits into the space on SE Division that was home to their short-lived takeout and patio dining restaurant Oma's Takeaway. But when Vandenberg passed away from coronavirus in California, everything changed. Thomas realized he had more to express about Oma's culinary universe. They bought a giant fish tank and turned it into a roasted meat case, with hooks to hang meats roasted out back—the future centerpiece of Oma's Hideaway—as Thomas dug into the other side of Oma, Malaysian Chinese cooking.
More than anything, this was the food he ate with Oma. It's the spark plug and glue of his ongoing journey. His mom and her family, being immigrants, were pressured to assimilate. As a young chef, Thomas idolized European traditions and French charcuterie before reconnecting with his grandmother. “She was my cultural touchstone,” he tells me, “the connection to our Asian-ism, a source of acceptance and pride.” Still, imposter syndrome is always present. “I feel I'm not Asian enough to represent a cuisine,” he confides. While her recipes helped drive Gado Gado, Vandenberg's influence on Oma's Hideaway is more spiritual, what Thomas calls “a celebration of where I am now with food identity and cultural identity because of her.”
Knowing this puts Oma's food in sharper focus. The kitchen's spin on the Malaysian-Chinese dish chai buoy, which translates roughly as “leftovers,” impresses my friend Pauline, who was born in Malaysia. “This takes me back to my mom's kitchen,” she exclaims, spooning through an impossibly rich pork broth chunked with braised and fermented mustard greens. But where Pauline's mom might use meaty pork bones, Oma busts out an eloquent sausage boasting Chinese duck, foie, and pork, with mustardy “hoisin-aise” on the side for dipping.
But the Oma zeitgeist is perhaps best expressed in a Fruity Pebbles Rice Krispie treat. In the mix and at play: garish cereal, candy stars, marshmallow gobs galore, and colors not yet recognized on the electromagnetic spectrum. That doesn't count the little snorts of lemongrass and lime leaf.
The whole thing is plastic wrapped and sealed with a sticker boasting Oma's visage. Somewhere, Tina is laughing.
Oma's Hideaway, 3131 SE Division St., 971-754-4923