At northeast Portland’s The Sports Bra, inclusion is sacred and women rule the place
Jenny Nguyen has been interviewed by NBC, CBS, NPR, Vogue, The Washington Post, The Guardian and a host of other media giants. What has attracted all the international interest? Nguyen’s new sports bar in northeast Portland, The Sports Bra, is a place where inclusion is sacred and women rule the place — whether that’s in the kitchen, or on the screen, where patrons watch women’s sports exclusively on the bar’s five TVs.
Although a meager 4% of sports television comprises women’s athletics, Nguyen and her team at The Sports Bra — affectionately known as “The Bra” — set out on a mission to put that 4% on blast.
It was while watching an NCAA women’s championship game that Nguyen and her friends romanticized watching the buzzer-beating final shot with the television sound on amongst other fans. What if someone could go somewhere and, instead of having to petition for a channel change, history-making games were already on? Better yet, what if this place had great food, stellar drinks and an aspiration to empower women?
Nguyen got to work. Unsurprisingly, her community responded. “The outpouring of support from people near and far has just been completely overwhelming,” she says.
While the concept for the bar was still developing, supporters shared the idea on social media in droves. Furthermore, The Sports Bra’s Kickstarter campaign, which sought $48,700 for things like overhead costs, quickly amassed $105,135 by February 2022, before the campaign was even scheduled to end.
“People come in and it’s amazing. You know, they bring their stories; it’s almost like the bar has become like a box to hold people’s memories. Not just that, but little kids have come in here to watch games and you can just tell that they’re totally inspired and drawn into seeing women playing the thing that they’re playing now. It’s almost like the bar has become a conduit for people’s past, present and futures for girl’s and women’s sports, which has just been the most rewarding thing to see,” Nguyen says.
Visit The Bra and you’ll witness women being lifted up in every aspect. Vendors have been handpicked, from Portland’s own women-owned-and-operated Freeland Spirits, to Carman Ranch, which is operated by a third-generation female rancher in Eastern Oregon.
When Nguyen began researching vendors and suppliers, she had no idea where to start. Even though she’d been cooking in fine-dining restaurants for more than 15 years, protocol on how to find conscientious, women-owned vendors was murky. Help came in the form of a relationship with Caitlin Bartlemay, head distiller at Clear Creek Distillery, who connected Nguyen with resources via social media.
The decision to involve Freeland Spirits in all of the bar’s specialty cocktails was an easy one and an early one. Less than 2% of U.S. distilleries are owned and operated by women, so Nguyen felt lucky to have some of this women-owned minority in her backyard.
“When I reached out to them, they were, of course, really excited and they had never been the featured distillery at any place — ever,” she says.
Nguyen describes Freeland Spirits as 100% voracious, assisting in the development of the bar’s signature cocktails and scheduling distillery tours and tastings for the team at The Bra. She calls the relationship akin to “business sisters,” which all stemmed from being a fan of their product for years.
Everything on tap is derived from women-owned breweries and Nguyen’s approach to stocking liquor is to change out product as she learns about industry newcomers, such as a scotch distillery she was recently introduced to that boasts a female master distiller.
A whiskey connoisseur herself, Nguyen recommends pairing the menu’s Balance Beam (made with Aimsir bourbon and brown sugar) with Mom’s Baby Back Ribs, a half-rack of Vietnamese-style ribs caramelized in coconut milk.
If ribs aren’t your go-to, The Sports Bra’s signature nachos paired with the citrusy and bright Time Out cocktail comes personally recommended by Nguyen.
“The Pickleball [cocktail] is its own appetizer. It’s got a really savory finish to it and we use a local pickling place here in southeast Oregon. It’s nine o’clock and my mouth’s watering for a martini? Danger zone,” laughs Nguyen.
Her passion for culinary arts developed in college, but the foundation was always there — specifically, at home, with family. Look no further than the bar’s food menu, where you’ll find Aunt Tina’s Vietna-Wings and the aforementioned mouth-watering Mom’s Baby Back Ribs.
“All the ladies in my family, they would just cook and have fun. That’s where they exchanged stories and that’s where they built their relationships and everything,” says Nguyen.
Nguyen loves the communal aspect of cooking and sharing meals with family, and she even sees a common thread with her passion for basketball.In both situations, she feels at home being part of a team.
“You step onto a court and everything else falls away — at least for me — and, you know, it doesn’t matter who you are, who you voted for, what you believe [or] who you love,” she says. “It’s this beautiful game that’s shared between people.”
This exhilarating, electric feeling was precisely what Nguyen felt when she stepped into a kitchen.
“The ticket comes out and everybody gets in position and then when the last ticket rolls in for the night, it’s like a celebratory time, just like the end of a game,” she says.
It’s not lost on Nguyen that athletics and the food industry are both male-dominated spaces. Creating a haven which celebrates women at the intersection of these two passions is something she holds with pride.
“It’s pretty rad,” she smiles. “We don’t discriminate when we hire, so we hire everybody, but our kitchen staff is mostly women.”
She says that she thought it would take a while to get here — “here” being ubiquitous support for the bar and the athletes it elevates.
“But almost immediately, it became a place that resonated with so many people on so many different levels. We’ve had hoards of people come in here and say to me, ‘I’ve never been into sports and I want to be here,’ ” said Nguyen. “Even in my wildest dreams, I had not imagined that The Sports Bra would have been as impactful as quickly as it has.”
The Sports Bra is open from Wednesday to Saturday at 2512 NE Broadway in Portland, Oregon. Kids are welcome in the bar until 10 p.m. — another intentional choice — since Nguyen wanted to show the next generation what women are capable of. To learn more and see what’s playing at The Sports Bra, visit thesportsbrapdx.com.