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The Gado Gado Team’s Next Project: A Wild Bar-Restaurant Called the Houston Blacklight

The 1970s-inspired spot will open this summer on SE Clinton, Jell-O shot Bundt cakes and French onion ramen soup in tow.

By Karen Brooks February 24, 2023

Mariah and Thomas Pisha-Duffly sharing coffee in the old Night Light Lounge, soon to be remodeled into the Houston Blacklight.

Portland’s most fearless food couple, James Beard–nominated chef Thomas Pisha-Duffly and his design-savvy wife, Mariah, will open their third project in June. The Houston Blacklight, a playful bar with casually serious food, will rise at 2100 SE Clinton St, formerly the Night Light Lounge.

Don’t expect a mere culinary offshoot of the couple’s funky, acclaimed Southeast Asian restaurants Gado Gado and Oma’s Hideaway, which recently launched the world’s first Filet-O-Fishball sandwich. The Blacklight will have its own look and identity, what they call “a mashup of Atomic Era fantasy and rough-edged elegance.” Meanwhile, the menu will fuse the couple’s love of decadent French-Montreal bistro food, complex Asian flavors, and irreverence, sometimes in the same dish.

Translation: French onion ramen soup, bone marrow burgers, and Jell-O shot bundt cakes. Something with caviar. Lamb tartare thrashing with mustard oil and Indian pickles. An entire section of things to serve with grilled bing (flatbread).  And, not least, a shrimp cocktail–inspired martini, with shrimp-shaped Jell-O hanging from the rim. Will they all come to life? Who can say. But the impulses make sense, even if they don’t. This is the kind of bold fun Portland could use right now.

“I’m going down the rabbit hole with vintage Jell-O molds,” says Mariah with a big grin. “We’re just being ourselves. It’s impossible for us to fit in, even when we want to. We’re lucky to find other weirdos to work with. We’re excited to collaborate with this little motley crew. I like being a home for misfits. We hope Blacklight will be a space for that spirit.” 

Drinks will focus on colorful, tropical shaken cocktails, slushies, house liqueurs, and twisted classics. Among the early ideas are a popcorn-washed whisky sour, freezer martinis with shiitake tinctures and pickled mushroom garnishes, and a sea of rum and salty soursop seafoam, served in a large shell. “We want to lean into the silly garnish, the performance aspect of bartending,” says Mariah. Helping guide the way is Em Warden, who heads up the playful beverage programs at Gado Gado and Oma’s Hideaway. 

The name pays homage to the Houston Blacklight, an influential 1970s poster company that interpreted the culture of the psychedelic era culture and sci-fi fantasy in Day-Glo colors. Mariah has been a fan since her teen years. Vintage Houston posters hang in Gado Gado. “The fantasy world is great for inspiration,” adds Mariah. “We don’t want to look like a dorm room. This won’t be a 1970s ‘theme bar.’ But it speaks to our ethos, taking what we do seriously, but not.” 

Portland architect Mark Annen (Little Bird, Boke Bowl) will redesign the space and expand the kitchen. Expect roughly 80 seats indoors, a bar, a spacious outdoor patio, and a private dining room in the back. The spirit of the old Night Light Lounge, a humble neighborhood watering hole and pandemic-era victim, will live on in the original horseshoe-shaped booths. The Pisha-Dufflys also plan to continue the Night Light’s legacy of hosting drag brunches.

As the food takes shape, Thomas confides his seven stages of menu writing: have an idea, write down 100 dishes, go into despair, rethink, something clicks, a list emerges, then an edit. The work-in-progress menu right now is ambitious for a bar, with sections titled “raw,” “with grilled bing bread, “snacks,” and “mains.”

One dish that caught my eye: roti grilled cheese with a tomato curry soup. Roti (flatbread) is a star at Oma’s and Gado Gado, At the Blacklight, as Thomas explains, it will get grill-toasted with cheese that will drip through the buttery, flaky cracks and form a thin, crackling fried cheese layer along the bottom. The soup will tap techniques he learned at the feet of famed Boston chef Barbara Lynch early in his career.

Meanwhile, the Blacklight bone marrow burger sounds pure, old-school medieval: a brisket, bone marrow, and chuck patty served with horseradish mayo, “some dope ass cheese,” caramelized onions, and a butter bun.  

Part of the vision comes from Thomas’s early training as a butcher and charcuterie lover. He cites Montreal’s famed Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon among his youthful muses. “These are things I love thrown into the mixing bowl with ten years of experience and travel. I’m hoping for good will from the customers. I hope they will come on this ride with us.”