When Bit House Saloon went down for the count as a result of the second shutdown, a trifecta of industry vets came in to reincarnate the bar as Bit House Collective. The bar’s spacious interior located within the historic Nathaniel West building now has a splash of tropical design elements while still retaining the saloon’s dark and sexy vibe. The collective is spearheaded by bartending powerhouse Natasha Mesa, Magna Kusina chef Carlo Lamagna, and Pono Brewing’s Larry Clouser.
“It’s the dream job I’ve always wanted. Working with a bunch of my friends, being able to do the things we’ve always wished we could do. It’s been so much fun bouncing all these ideas off of each other, and inspirations and flavor profiles,” said Mesa. "Everyone’s going all hands in, when it comes to new cocktail creations, education, and the service.”
Among the usual suspects line-up of Filipinx dishes and an island smash burger, the Crab Fat fries immediately stood out to me on the menu. The fat is the flavor packed element that allows the dish to command a $17 price tag. If I had to select one thing at Bit House to serve as a representation of the bar’s “Michelin star dive bar” credo, it’d be this.
After sending my fries on a quick trip in and out of the air fryer, I set to assembling the dish with pickled corn relish, hard-boiled egg, fried garlic, and scallions. The kitchen smartly packages the ingredients separate from the waffle fries to avoid a soggy mess. As delicious as the crab fat is, I feel like fries are not the right vehicle for it. (At his temporarily shuttered restaurant Magna Kusina, chef Lamagna gives squid ink noodles the crab fat treatment. I might or might not have just drooled writing the previous sentence.) The crabby fatty leans more towards the consistency of a broth than a gravy, lacking the silky viscosity that makes poutine so comforting. I sampled a couple spoonfuls straight up before pouring it over the fries and could have easily devoured the entire container of flavor rich soup.
Meanwhile, Mesa’s “Strawberry Soup” starts with a base of rums (the menu doesn’t go into specifics), and the titular ingredient is built upon with Szechuan, lemongrass, mint, lime acid, and CO2 (carbon dioxide for all of y’all who have selectively forgotten chem class). I suspect the unidentified rum is white as the cocktail has a light body and almost sips like a vodka cocktail. With fruit, acid, herbaceous notes, and just a touch of heat, this cocktail checked all the boxes for me.
Mesa practices her craft with a culinary approach. The mixtress loves to experiment with Asian ingredients such as pandan, ube, seaweed, and toasted rice powder, and draws inspiration from the Collective’s kitchen. One of the bartender’s most innovative creations at her previous haunt Deadshot was a play on tom kha called the “Super Soup.” Mesa aims “To bring that culinary aspect into your drink so you get that experience or that nostalgia of something, or something you’ve eaten, but in this crazy liquid form.”
Factoring beer into the equation, the team put together a creative looking drop shot menu which features every single one of Pono’s fruit forward beers. One such concoction is the “PPJD,” for which grape vodka and peanut butter whiskey are dropped into a Pinot Porter. Mesa recently worked with Pono on a collaboration brew that will be released soon, so keep an eye out for that. Shandies are also in the works for when we finally get over the hump of warm weather fake-outs and into a sun-drenched summer.
One of Mesa’s driving principles is to make her bar program accessible to fledgling bartenders. “For me, coming up in the industry it was really hard to even get my foot in the door,” says Mesa. “In Portland, it’s kind of known as a pretentious space. You couldn’t get a job in a craft cocktail bar unless you knew someone.” With an understanding of the challenges up and comers face and the experience she’s since gained, Mesa wants to pay it forward by providing mentorship opportunities.
“What I’m creating essentially is a space where people from out of town can come, people that have never bartended before can have an opportunity to learn from some of the best in the industry. Especially when it comes to hiring females. We’ve already taken a backseat when it comes to this male-dominated industry, so I’m just giving them the spotlight to shine,” said Mesa.
Another important piece for Mesa is giving back to local organizations. In every bar program she has run, portions of proceeds from drink specials go towards charity. This concept isn’t unique to Mesa or Bit House, what I found notable is the amount of money they are donating. Most “cocktails for a cause” initiatives I’ve seen tend to commit a dollar or two, but Mesa’s minimum is three dollars per drink, plus she makes sure to secure a match from the brand. The final count ends up being a whopping six to eight dollar donation per cocktail (look ma, I can math). “My philosophy is: If we’re going to do something to help someone, then we have to put both feet in,” she said. Currently, the bar “features” a different organization each month, but Mesa hopes to grow the program to support two to three orgs on a monthly basis.
Bit House Collective, 727 SE Grand, (503) 954-3913, bithousesaloon.com