The new decade came out swinging for Thomas and Mariah Pisha-Duffly, co-owners of Gado Gado, the buzzy Indonesian restaurant tucked into the Hollywood District.
They welcomed the birth of their daughter, Loretta. They earned their first James Beard Award nomination for Best New Restaurant just a few months after being named Newcomer of the Year in WW's Restaurant Guide. March looked like it was going to be Gado Gado's busiest month to date.
"And then," Thomas Pisha-Duffly says, pausing for dramatic effect. "It's like, and then…everything changed."
On the morning of March 15, the Pisha-Dufflys began their day prepping for dinner service as usual. That afternoon, they could see a closure looming on the horizon. By that evening, it was clear this would be their last day of normal operations.
As news about Gov. Kate Brown's shutdown order swept across the state, small business owners, like the Pisha-Dufflys, had to make decisions at warp speed. The original plan was to remain open in some capacity, but Gado Gado's menu—rich, thoughtful meals meant to be enjoyed at the table—seemed an awkward fit for the takeout model.
"We knew we had to keep making food," Thomas Pisha-Duffly says. "I don't know what else to do at a time like that. My go-to is to make food and try to be some sort of beacon of normalcy in a time when everything kind of sucks."
After a couple of weeks of planning, the couple decided to temporarily reopen the restaurant as Oma's Takeaway, an homage to Thomas' grandmother—his "Oma"—Kiong Tien Vandenberg, who died earlier this year from COVID-19 complications.
Instead of creating new versions of Gado Gado's typical fare, Oma's Takeaway tapped into the cultural appetite at different moments of the pandemic, phasing its menu through each collective craving and spike of anxiety.
It began with what Thomas Pisha-Duffly calls "stoner food," fun takes on classic dishes he could elevate with his culinary finesse. An early menu item paid tribute to Kentucky Fried Chicken's greased-up Famous Bowl, but had a bit more polish by including Indonesian fried chicken, mashed potatoes, creamed corn and a blood sausage gravy with lemongrass and turmeric. It was an instant hit.
"That was what people were looking for," Pisha-Duffly says. "Something less cerebral."
When the quarantine sluggishness kicked in and patrons had sufficiently gorged themselves on comfort food, the dishes changed again, this time to include fresh, bitey salads with vegetables sourced from Side Yard Farm in Cully.
As restaurants reopened under Phase 1, the Pisha-Dufflys returned their focus to Gado Gado. The original restaurant would welcome customers again with patio seating, limited reservations, and 6-feet-apart food drops. But Oma's Takeaway felt destined to live on as its own quirky, pandemic-borne venture.
When the bulk of Andy Ricker's Pok Pok empire had folded in June and the couple later received an offer to launch inside the Whiskey Soda Lounge—the space that used to operate as a waiting room for the flagship—the move felt "fortuitous," says Mariah Pisha-Duffly.
Both Mariah and Thomas Pisha-Duffly worked for Ricker at different points in their careers. Their business partner, Toby Roberts, once served as president for the Thai restaurant group. Taking over the location would be an opportunity to try something new, and to rehire many of the staff who were laid off from Gado Gado last spring.
In late August, Oma's Takeaway took up its post on Southeast Division Street, keeping with the grab-and-go model while taking full advantage of the open patio. A handful of patrons can now "dine in" at Oma's under a web of fairy lights and a bright blue covering.
At least for now, the menu has settled into a rhythm that Thomas Pisha-Duffly is happy with. He kept Oma's corn fritters, an early favorite, and rounded things out with a pork belly mee goreng (Indonesian pan-fried noodles), as well as laksa, a spicy noodle soup that riffs on New England clam chowder, a nod to the couple's years in Portland, Maine.
The Pisha-Dufflys know the dining experience at both restaurants will have to change in the coming months, each now prone to the whims of the weather. Mariah Pisha-Duffly has a vision for Oma's Takeaway in which guests can bring blankets to their reserved tables and sip on creamy, Vietnamese-inspired coffee cocktails inside a heated tent. It could be like coming inside from a snow day as a kid and sipping hot chocolate.
"Being outdoors in the winter," she says, "we want to lean into that and make it part of the fun."
For both, Oma's Takeaway has been a rough gem in a difficult year. And it probably wouldn't have happened if not for the public health crisis.
"Everything's a gamble in the restaurant industry, it always is," Thomas Pisha-Duffly says. "Even more now. We wanted to bet on ourselves and our staff."
And to bet on a high-end-cuisine-meets-junk-food Asian-fusion outdoor pop-up?
"It's very on-brand," he adds.
UPDATE: Oma's Takeaway and Gado Gado are moving to takeout only during the lockdown, the former focusing on Malaysian comfort food and the latter serving similar dishes as its most recent lineup, but with more dinner sets for two to four.