On a recent warm spring evening, Gado Gado threw a block party for one.
The sun was dimming, but the restaurant's parking lot off Northeast César E. Chávez Boulevard buzzed with a bright energy of its own making. Neon pink, green and blue fliers lined the street-facing windows, a disco ball dangled from an instant canopy sheltering to-go order pickup just outside the front door, and a collection of potted plants seemed to sway along to a rap remix of the Zombies' "Time of the Season."
I had the shindig all to myself. The whole experience was buoyantly surreal. It was maybe the most fun I'd ever had picking up food, even with the nearest people being tucked in the dining room—just a few masked employees—well over the recommended 6 feet of distancing away. Co-owners Thomas and Mariah Pisha-Duffly intended it to be that way.
"Instead of just showing up and grabbing your thing off the curb," Thomas says, "you get this touch that says, 'Hey, we're still thinking of you, and maybe this can brighten your day a little bit.'"
Like other restaurants that have abruptly pivoted to new models in the wake of the coronavirus and the ensuing mandated closure of dining rooms across the state, the couple briefly considered selling family-style meals that can be completed at home, but Thomas says that just didn't fit well with the experience he and his wife envisioned for patrons. They decided to return to what they knew best: fragrant, fiery and rib-sticking Asian-American mashups, now served under the name Oma's Takeaway.
"What felt more like us was getting back to our pop-up roots," Thomas says, "and doing food that had a little more funk and flavor to it, a little more tongue in cheek."
That playfulness is evident in everything from puffy pork rinds dusted in chile cheese—a tribute to Flamin' Hot Cheetos—to a delightfully sloppy Sunday-only burger featuring a dense patty made of brisket, dry-aged rib-eye and marbled rib meat slapped with a slice of American.
As with Gado Gado, the inspiration for a number of Thomas' creations is his 93-year-old grandmother, affectionately known as "Oma." Some of her traditional Indonesian recipes are available to order, but always assume they're molded into something entirely different and unexpected.
"So much of what's happening right now is so serious. Things are just so unsure," Thomas says. "We wanted to provide a little bit of lightness and levity to the situation, which is part of what dining out is all about—being able to escape from your day, your reality."
My latest escape, delivered in a bag adorned with hand-drawn hearts, was Thomas' green beans and brisket. Here's what goes into it:
The chewy nubs of meat at the heart of this recipe are "basically like a five-spice pastrami," Thomas says, except it actually contains 10 different seasonings, along with brown sugar, salt, Shaoxing wine and water to brine the brisket. That slab is then smoked for eight to 10 hours and cubed once it's cooled.
The green beans
The brisket keeps working hard in this dish, even after it's cooked. The leftover fat from the meat is used to fry the green beans until they just start to blister in a wok. Thomas then adds a house chile jam, which is sweet at the get-go with a heat that quickly encroaches, followed by the chunks of brisket. The whole mixture is deglazed with a splash of Shaoxing wine, a rice wine from China's Zhejiang province.
The beans and brisket come bedecked with a savory fried egg, topped with a briny crew of candied anchovy and dried baby shrimp and accompanied by fried shallots, garlic, peanuts and puffed rice.
White, clove-scented rice is popular in Indonesia. The version you're getting here is straight from Oma's recipe box. The grains are prepared with coconut milk, cloves, cinnamon, pandan, ginger and lemongrass, making them irresistibly aromatic. To finish, Thomas toasts ground garlic until it's almost burned, then drizzles the oil over the rice.
ORDER: Oma's Takeaway's brisket and green bean bowl can be ordered at gadogadopdx.com for pickup at 1801 NE Cesar E. Chavez Blvd., or delivery through Caviar. $15.