Every culture, language and generation has their own slang – whether it be the hip daddy-o’s from the 1950s or those hella legit NorCal surfers from the 90s. And Deaf culture is no different.
For folks who use American Sign Language (ASL), “pah” is a celebratory word that means “finally,” “success” or “at last.” It’s slang that uses a mouth morpheme in addition to the signed word for emphasis or to add context.
“You make that movement with your mouth as you sign the word ‘finally’,” Lillouie Barrios explained, “And of course, this is a world that a lot of cis-gendered, white people have been in charge for a long time and so finally — Pah! — we can have our turn.”
That “world” is restaurants, where Barrios and his husband Victor Covarrubias have worked since they were teenagers. So for someone queer, Latinx and deaf, Pah! is the perfect name for a new restaurant.
Barrios said he experienced a lot of work discrimination, something common in the Deaf community: “So I thought I want to open my own restaurant, be my own boss and make those decisions myself.”
Located in the food hall at The ZED in Southeast Portland, Pah! serves classic American pub food with a side of ASL slang.
“If you go to an Asian restaurant, you might see a menu that has Asian words on it and then it might have English alongside it,” says Barrios. “So we took that inspiration, and have the ASL slang [with] the little English explanation to represent our own language, our own community and our own culture within that.”
Barrios pointed out the pun for their fish and chips, which is called “Finish”. The ASL sign for fish and the word finish are similar, which makes the name a play on words when it is signed. But the menu names aren’t the only Deaf-centered part of Pah! Everyone who works there uses ASL, even Barrios’ husband, who is the only hearing staff member.
“I had to teach Victor to keep his voice off,” said Barrios. “When a hearing customer comes in, I want them to learn the role reversal of feeling what it is like to be in deaf shoes and trying to communicate.”
Barrios says for customers who know ASL, it’s exciting to be able to have that dialogue with them and thrilling to see them ordering with ease. Especially because for some, it may be their first time being able to use ASL to order at a restaurant.
“I saw some parents come in who are hearing and maybe don’t sign as fluently, but their child who’s deaf could sign fluently” Barrios said. “It was really inspirational to see the child be able to order for the family and be proud and just have that moment to be able to answer in their own language.”
For those who don’t know ASL, they’ve devised a work-around: Pah! has a small microphone set up at the register that will pick up a spoken order and convert it to text on an iPad. They also use the countertop to write on if they need to clarify something or let folks know how long the wait for food will be.
“I see people’s faces are a little confused at the beginning,” said Covarrubias, “but then it’s kind of fun for them — like when they’re writing back and forth, it ends up being a little bit of an experience.”
But it’s an experience not everyone is ready for. A couple months after Pah! opened, they were part of Burger Week, a citywide event that had nearly 50 restaurants creating specialty burgers. Even for seasoned restaurants, the event can bring in an overwhelming crowd.
“I caught one person walking in, very excited for Burger Week, getting ready to order… and they saw the sign [that] emphasized that it was a deaf restaurant and they just turned around, walked away and left,” said Barrios. “It’s unlucky, I guess, but I don’t want to chase them down and make it easier for them, I want them to learn.”
Part of Pah!’s mission is to bring together Deaf culture with the hearing world, something you can see on display during a monthly “Silent Chat Night” for ASL learners.
“The sign for chat in ASL has nothing to do with talking, it has everything to do with moving your hands”, said Misty V’Marie. “And so this is definitely not a talking night, this is a chatting night.”
V’Marie teaches ASL 1 and 2 at David Douglas High School and is the advisor for the school’s ASL Honor Society. Each month during the school year, the group hosts a Silent Chat Night with ASL learners from the community.
“It’s just amazing to be able to come in and you just look to your left and you see hands flying,” said V’Marie, laughing.
Previously held at a Burgerville, V’Marie approached Pah! about holding the Silent Chat Night at The ZED, so students could use their ASL in a real world setting.
“We learn how to sign all the [items] on the menu”, she said. “And my ASL three students are already like ‘Oh I know how to sign cheeseburger, I know how to sign French fries,’ so it’s great practice.”
Pah! has not only made a splash locally, but already has seen customers from around the country and even around the world.
“We had two people from Australia come, two from India, some Canadians,” said Barrios. “The hearing world is so big compared to Deaf communities [which] are so spread out. When we hear of a Deaf business, it doesn’t matter where it is, on the East Coast, West Coast, we wanna go check it out.”
For Barrios, this is all just part of his five-year plan with the hope to ultimately open a Deaf gay bar focusing on deaf patrons with an all deaf staff.
Sign Language Interpreter Katie Thesing assisted on this story.