The grand opening of one of the newest restaurants in Portland, Pah!, drew visitors from as far away as Chicago, Las Vegas, and Minnesota. Within just a couple hours, the restaurant had sold out of its house made burger patties, and the owners had to close momentarily to catch up on prep. There are no other restaurants like it in Portland—and few other restaurants like it in the country.
Pah! is a proudly deaf, queer, and Latinx-owned restaurant at The Zed, the food court at Zoiglhaus Brewing’s taproom. Lillouie Barrios, who is deaf, and his husband Victor Covarrubias, who is hearing, teamed up to open the restaurant, which displays a Mexican flag, a bisexual pride flag, an LGBTQ+ flag, and a trans flag; a Deaf flag is coming soon. The menu includes pub-style dishes such as blooming onions, burgers, and fish and chips. They've created a workplace where Barrios could not only be free from the discrimination he’d previously faced in the industry, but where d/Deaf* culture was showcased. (Editor's note: Some d/Deaf people, including Barrios, prefer to use a lower case d, to represent people who became deaf later in life or have many hearing family and friends; many people who use a capital D identify strongly with Deaf culture, have attended Deaf schools, and/or have many Deaf family members and friends.)
“Since I’ve worked in restaurants locally, I’ve really struggled to communicate while working there. I felt oppression and discrimination. And I thought, what if I did something very different? What if I worked somewhere that was deaf-owned, full access to communication? I decided to open it myself, be my own boss, and hire deaf employees,” Barrios says via an interpreter.
The restaurant’s name, Pah!, is ASL slang for “success” or “finally”—a term of excitement fitting for Portland’s first deaf-owned restaurant. Each dish on the menu gets its own ASL name, too. 258, the name for the blooming onion, means “very interesting.” Kissfist, the nickname for the classic cheeseburger, means “I love it." That-That, the name for the salad, means “That’s exactly what I’m talking about!,” and Pei Pei, the name of the bacon cheeseburger, means “cocky.”
“When you go to an Asian restaurant or an Italian restaurant, the names of dishes are often written in their language,” Barrios says. “Why should it be any different with ASL?”
The couple brings their previous experience in the food and beverage industry to Pah!. Barrios has worked at The Queen’s Head, McMenamin’s, and Mis Tacones, while Covarrubias has worked at Harlow and at his family’s restaurant, Don Pepe, in Oregon City. The couple connected through a dating app seven years ago, when Covarrubias invited Barrios to a concert. It wasn’t until the pair met in person that Covarrubias realized Barrios was deaf. Just like when he applied for jobs, Barrios didn't include in his dating profile the fact that he is deaf. “It was a bit of a shock,” Covarrubias says.
“Well, he should have told me he was hearing!” retorts Barrios. Covarrubias didn’t know a word of ASL when the couple met, but he dedicated himself to learning online, including through YouTube.
So how does ordering work at a deaf-owned restaurant? Those who know ASL communicate with the cashier in sign language. Those who don’t know how to sign speak into a tablet connected to a microphone and equipped with transcription software that shows the spoken words on the screen. The cashier writes the order directly onto the counter with a liquid chalk pen to confirm the dishes were communicated correctly, then writes the order’s total price.
“Too bad for the hearing people who order—you have to work our way," says Barrios.
We tried the Kissfist, which sounded like a classic cheeseburger on the menu but surprised us with a little extra oomph from Pah’s own secret sauce (hint: it involves Worcestershire). The patty was juicy and perfectly cooked, while the cheese—Muenster, in this case—was nicely gooey. The hand-cut fries were crisp and not overly oily, complete with extra secret sauce for dipping (or in our case, aggressively dunking). There’s a vegan option for all burgers, too. They’re using plant-based cheese from Portland’s own queer and Latinx-owned vegan taqueria Mis Tacones. In the future, Barrios and Covarrubias plan to add their own scratch-made vegan burger patties. Gluten-free options are also in the works.
In the six weeks since Pah! opened, Barrios and Covarrubias have already hired two employees, and both are d/Deaf. While one had worked in the back of house as a dishwasher before, this was his first time working the front of house as a cashier—a position that d/Deaf people are often excluded from. In the future, the couple says they hope to open restaurants in cities across the country to provide more opportunities for d/Deaf people to gain experience in the industry.
The location also serves as a gathering place for the d/Deaf community and allies. In November, Pah! will host Deaf Night Out, a monthly gathering on the second Saturday of the month for people who are d/Deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing allies. They’re also hoping to host a weekly d/Deaf event in connection with ASL classes at David Douglas High School.
Their ultimate dream? To open a deaf gay bar, staffed entirely by deaf employees including bartenders and cooks. If you’ve attended drag shows in Portland, you might know Barrios by his stage name, Sin Nombre. He’s performed in drag at The Nest, The Portland Pride Festival, and the now-closed Local Lounge, where he performs the lyrics in ASL, called hand-syncing, rather than lip-syncing. During the pandemic, Barrios started his own drag performance company called Handsync, which hosts shows of all-d/Deaf drag queens in cities including Seattle, San Francisco, Phoenix, and New York City.
Barrios is taking a break from drag performance while running the new restaurant, but he’ll return to the stage in September for a performance in Washington, D.C., one of the biggest hubs in the country for the d/Deaf community. Meanwhile, he’s gearing up to host Handsync Con, his first convention of d/Deaf drag queens from June 9-11, 2023 in Portland; a Handsync cruise in the Mexican Riviera is also scheduled for spring 2024.