Mariah Pisha-Duffly was going to be late.
The restaurant and bar industry vet was working with her partner, chef Thomas Pisha-Duffly, in Portland, Maine, and the company Christmas party was well under way. By the time she arrived, all the food was gone, and she was starving. “Don’t worry,” her husband said. “I saved something for you.” With a smile, he revealed what he had hidden in his pockets: handfuls of pigs in a blanket, because he knew she loved them.
Years later, the Pisha-Dufflys now own two successful restaurants in Portland, Oregon: The Hollywood Indonesian-ish restaurant Gado Gado and the freewheeling Southeast Division spot Oma’s Hideaway. Both restaurants use the chef’s culinary history and lineage as a jumping off point in collaborative, lively spaces. At the couple’s new bar, the Houston Blacklight, echoes of Mariah appear everywhere: In the name, a reference to the blacklight posters she has collected for decades; in the psychedelic aesthetic, which she sees as her personal ideology and a reflection of the exploratory and non-conformist nature of the bar; and in a set of sausage and milk bread pull-apart rolls, Tom’s homage to her beloved pigs in a blanket.
The Houston Blacklight opens Wednesday, July 26 in the former Night Light Lounge space, and on that first day, the Pisha-Dufflys want the bacchanalia to begin. Global disco will play on the speakers among the dings of Flash Gordon pinball, piles of patrons crowded into its booths and bar seats. As visitors enter, they’re greeted by the bar’s fringe wall. “It’s this immediate punch in your senses,” Mariah Pisha-Duffly says. “You want to touch it, put your face in it, rub yourself in it.”
The Night Light’s large, circular booths remain, but much of the former bar has otherwise shifted. Beaded curtains hang to separate the space’s various nooks and enclaves, those sporting Moroccan rugs and black banquettes. A Chet Malinow installation consumes the bathroom, giving its walls a trippy, ever-changing set of murals. Kate Blairstone, the artist behind all of the Pisha-Duffly restaurants’ wallpaper, chose something more risqué than the sea creatures and shellfish found at the other locations: more like creatures with animal heads and human bodies, naked and posed in bright neon. “Kate has always been a big part of narrowing in on the look of our spaces,” Mariah says. “She said, ‘Okay this is perfect, because I’ve been wanting to draw a really sexy gay horse.’”
The food and drink, of course, are meant to match the interiors — wild and fun, but also primally comforting. In initial interviews, the Pisha-Dufflys indicated that they’d use the famous Montreal restaurant Joe Beef as a reference point, and many of the bar’s dishes incorporate that Quebec French touch — while retaining Thomas Pisha-Duffly’s renowned playfulness. For example, French onion soup arrives in a crock with bubbling Gruyere, hiding a tangle of instant ramen noodles underneath. “Tom has been talking about some sort of French onion ramen dish for I don’t know, 10 years?” Mariah says. “His favorite food in the world is onions in any and every form.” The chef also tosses fries in mala seasoning and then smothers them in mapo tofu. A cheeseburger is fortified with bone marrow, and salt-and-pepper squid comes with pepperoncini, like a New England fried calamari. A roti grilled cheese, stuffed with Jasper Hill Alpha Tolman and queso Oaxaca, comes paired with a tomato curry for dunking. The kitchen even goes as simple as shrimp cocktail, with just a little funky hit of sambal terasi.
As for drinks, beverage director Em Warden uses a full color palette from the kitchen and backbar, creating kaleidoscope cocktails incorporating several fun components. For example, the bar’s Harvey Wallbanger variant uses fresh turmeric, passionfruit, orange blossom, and yogurt, with a citrus jelly garnish. One of the house slushies comes with popping boba, while the Old Fashioned relies on a coconut-washed bourbon with lapsang syrup. For zip in the mezcal lime leaf margarita, Warden uses a touch of lactic acid. But Mariah Pisha-Duffly is partial toward the Many Things Cannot Fly, a blackberry gin cocktail with black sesame orgeat, coconut, and — of all things — Jägermeister. “One of my favorite things about Em’s drinks is, there is a lot of technique, there’s a lot of thought that goes into it, but that is not what you get when you’re drinking it,” she says. “You’re thinking, ‘Fuck, that is so good.’”
That experience is true of most of the Pisha-Duffly spots, both in the food and drink: Make it wild, make it meticulously, but don’t make it pretentious. For Mariah, she hopes that the Houston Blacklight can be even freer than any of the couple’s other restaurants — free from the expectations of what a restaurant should be (it is a bar, after all), but also how the bar’s visitors should behave within it. “I want people to feel like space and time and societal conventions don’t exist here,” she says. “I want people to be ready to have fun, practice radical self expression, and experience every type of sensory joy that’s possible.”
The Houston Blacklight opens at 4 p.m. Wednesday, July 26, at 2100 SE Clinton Street. Take a look inside the space below.