Bartender Ricky Gomez, who won the title of U.S. Best Bartender of the Year in the world's largest cocktail competition in 2012, plans to open a new cocktail-happy Cuban bar and restaurant called Palomar, serving up Cuban comfort-food classics, blended cocktails and daiquiris by the boatload.
But he says he's going back to his roots with Palomar, opening this December in a new building at 959 SE Division Street, graced by a 70-foot tall Finbar Dac mural of a woman with plants growing out of her hair.
"Both my parents are from Havana, and I was born and raised in New Orleans," says Gomez, who says he plans to bring the energy he found in Cuban bars on his numerous trips to his parents' birthplace.
"I want it to be very fun, very entertaining, very approachable," Gomez says. "There will be blenders, frozen drinks, shaken, stirred. A lot of it will be classic cocktails with twists: a negroni with pineapple gin, and little variations on daiquiris. There will be a full daiquiri menu: strawberry, Hemingway, classic, blended."
But he says the essence of a Cuban bar isn't just in the glass—it's in the room.
"A lot of it is the atmosphere. It'll be pretty bright, colorful. A lot of places in Portland will have that dark burnished wood, this very sexy feeling—that's not what I think embodies Cuba," Gomez says. It's light, bright, atmosphere and music. The energy is vibrant: The cocktails are something that's a driving force, but my staff is more important: The cocktails have to taste good—but who we have, building the energy and the culture is more important."
Gomez brought aboard a pair of people from Mississippi Avenue bar Interurban, including his new general manager Brandon Josie and former Interurban sous chef Patrick Kille.
"The food is going to be classic Cuban diner food," Gomez says, "the food I grew up with: croquetas, empanadas, sandwiches. Everybody loves the Cubano, but I love the medianoche even more, which is like a Cubano with a sweet bread. I wanted to build build a menu of all the things I love to eat."
Other items will include a roast turkey and strawberry sandwich, whole fried red snapper, pollo a la plancha, a chorizo-beef Cuban take on the hamburger called a frita, and a vegan ropa vieja made with jackfruit.
But Gomes says there will be one very Portland—and very New Orleans—item on the menu that has nothing to do with Cuba.
"I gotta have oysters on the menu, but there's no oysters in Cuba," he says. "That's gotta be there—it's New Orleans and the Northwest as well."
Though Gomez returned to New Orleans for the past three years, he said he missed the atmosphere in Portland and jumped at the chance to come back here to start a restaurant.
"I missed the Northwest—the community, the diners, the outdoors, the classic cars. Everything I love: I've got an 1970 El Camino, and a '55 Bel Air in the middle of a custom job at a shop in Portland."
But as for the name of the bar and restaurant, that goes all the way back to Havana.
"Palomar is slang for a pigeon coop in Cuba," Gomez says. "That's what my father called his first apartment. Well, this is my first bar."