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Sunday, August 19, 2012 - Page updated at 06:30 p.m.

Foodlandia: Eating and drinking off-the-beaten-track in Portland

By Providence Cicero
Special to The Seattle Times

Greg Denton is hot. He's so hot perspiration clings to his balding pate as he manipulates the wood-fired Argentine grill, the focal point of Ox, a dynamic new restaurant in northeast Portland.

The grill's glowing red maw spews sparks and looks big enough to cook an ox. That's not on the menu, but plenty of other meats are, from beef to lamb, pork and goat.

On a weeknight, the brick-walled room was packed but I was happy to snag one of the seven counter seats around the grill, which employs a clever bit of recycling. A trough at the bottom catches the drippings. Those are mixed with garlic, onion and herbs and used to baste the meats as they cook. The technique makes even a simple skirt steak, served with crusty bread and bracing chimichurri sauce, unforgettable. "When I go home and fire up the Weber, it's just not the same," sous chef Patrick Martinez said ruefully.

At Ox they grill wild Alaskan halibut and whole Hawaiian prawns, too, on multiple racks that are raised and lowered with pulleys and gears. Halved artichokes nestle in the ashes; so do whole fava beans, which can be eaten pods and all.

Like some of my favorite Portland restaurants — Gabriel Rucker's Le Pigeon, Andy Ricker's Pok Pok, Jen Louis's Lincoln and Kathy Whims' Nostrana — Ox is east of the Willamette River. Downtown Portland, northwest Portland and the Pearl district still offer plenty to amaze the culinary tourist, but indie chefs are gravitating toward up-and-coming neighborhoods in northeast and southeast Portland. Space is more affordable and eaters are more adventurous, the Dentons say. "When we cooked at a restaurant in the Pearl, people weren't so interested in offal. But at Ox, that's what goes first."

Northeast Portland

Ox is on a nondescript stretch of Martin Luther King Boulevard two miles from downtown and halfway to the hip, artsy collection of cafes, galleries and shops on Alberta Street where I went for breakfast at Pine State Biscuits. Walt Alexander, Kevin Atchley and Brian Snyder, three North Carolinians known as the "biscuit boys," launched the business in 2006 at the Portland Farmers Market, where they still draw crowds; just as they do at their two eastside locations in Alberta and Belmont.

The Alberta Street store feels like a country diner with an inner-city edge. Order your meal, fill a heavy mug with Stumptown Coffee, and then decide where to sit: inside, outside or at the counter. You'll need an eating surface for hearty biscuit sandwiches like the Reggie Deluxe, a teetering tower of temptation best attacked with knife and fork. Even piled high with fried chicken, bacon, spicy sausage gravy, cheddar cheese and a fried egg, these biscuits can more than hold their ground.

After that, I had ice cream. How could I not? A block away was Salt & Straw, a scoop shop with an audacious "flavor menu." Coffee and Bourbon contains an all-Portland amalgam of Stumptown coffee, Holy Kakow chocolate and Burnside bourbon. Local fruit and Portland Creamery cheese go into Chevre with Marionberry Habanero Jam.

Since cousins Kim and Tyler Malek first started peddling their small-batch ice creams from a push cart on Southeast Division Street, they've added two stores. The other, in northwest Portland, has a bakery attached. In the likely event that you can't narrow your choices to one or two, a four-scoop tasting flight is $9.

The eclectic dinner menu of small plates at Aviary drew me back to Alberta Street that evening for tempura green beans with a luxurious green curry sauce, and a rousing salad of sesame-crusted fried chicken skin, watermelon (red flesh and pickled rind), peppery greens and smoky baba ganoush. The elegantly austere gallerylike restaurant includes a secluded bar and a counter facing an open kitchen where a trio of chefs works in concert — Sarah Pliner, Jasper Shen, and Kat Whitehead.

While I was up that way, I checked out Smallwares in nearby Beaumont, a sedate neighborhood just the opposite of idiosyncratic Alberta. Johanna Ware's slick red-and-white eatery has an adjacent drinkery called Barwares. Sake, beer and wine are arranged by taste: funky, fruity, fizzy, earthy and rich. A Thai chili and pineapple rum punch also goes well with her Asian-inspired-but-anything-goes menu that includes noodle soups, raw fish, kimchi and curry. Best bites: tempura-fried kale, cilantro and mint with candied bacon and a splash of fish sauce; and dashi (Japanese broth) with a poached egg, salty trout roe and spicy micro mustard greens.

Southeast Portland

Coava Coffee roasts and brews their single-origin beans in a corner of a vast southeast Portland warehouse shared with Bamboo Revolution, a company that develops innovative bamboo products — an only-in-Portland union. There — amid samples of flooring, trim and cabinetry — patrons sip sensational java and sit with laptops parked on re-purposed woodworking equipment, among them a former drill press and a table saw minus the blade.

A half-mile east is another eccentric coupling. Rick Gencarelli's Lardo and Kir Jensen's dessert cart, The Sugar Cube, sit side by side at 12th and Hawthorne. (Cartopia, a cluster of popular, late-night food trucks, is across the street.)

Lardo is a former food cart gone bricks and mortar — or rather white tile and butcher block. People line up from midday to midnight for sumptuous pork sandwiches on crusty rolls, and "dirty fries" cooked in lardo (cured pork fat) and riddled with pork scraps, hot pickled peppers and grated Parmesan.

For their signature porchetta they use whole midsections of a Tails & Trotter's hazelnut-finished pig, fashioning a roast by rolling the belly meat into the whole loin. I watched them load six or eight roasts into a Traeger barbecue next to the restaurant. Soon a rotisserie will help keep up with demand for the thick-sliced, fat-rich pork infused with fennel, garlic and herbs, piled on a crusty roll lavished with lemon, garlic and caper gremolata.

The Sugar Cube wasn't open, so I headed for Good Food Here in search of dessert. It was like a carnival, with families gathered at picnic tables and a dozen carts pedaling edibles. Mindful of my Lardo lunch, I resisted the rich aromas wafting from Herb's Mac and Cheese and nixed the "Bacon and Maple" ice cream at 50 Licks. Instead I had a sweet, creamy Oregon strawberry cone and bought a slice of The Honey Pot's fabulous apple pie for later.

Downtown, Northwest and the Pearl

My 48-hour eating and drinking marathon in the Rose City included a memorable cocktail in the dim recesses of The Driftwood Room at the Hollywood-themed Hotel deLuxe. Humphrey Bogart in his heyday wouldn't have looked out of place here brooding over a double Manhattan dubbed "Bittersweet Symphony," made with Temperance bourbon from local distiller Bull Run.

From the hotel it was an easy walk to dinner in the Pearl District at Riffle NW, where a couple of ex-New Yorkers, Ken Norris and Jennifer Quist Norris, have given Portland something it's been missing, a solid seafood-focused restaurant.

Riffle's breezy, low-ceilinged warehouse space, finished with reclaimed dock wood and old canvas sailcloth, feels nautical in a modern way. Details delight. The drink menu attached to a wooden dowel hides in a slit cut into the table, ready for reference anytime. A column of custom-cut ice as tall as the glass chilled the salt-rimmed Riffle Collins: a refreshing lemon-lime rush of gin, absinthe and celery juice.

The local catch included tomato-kissed chowder loaded with clams, mussels and halibut; Petrale sole, sautéed with lemon, butter and herbs, presented with its salty, deep-fried skeleton; and bacon aioli with salmon carpaccio, deep red from a beet and citrus marinade.

I made a couple more stops before hitting Interstate 5 for home. Bowery Bagels on Northwest Broadway is the perfect name and address for a place that looks like a subway stop and makes bagels that taste like the real New York deal. But a multigrain bagel topped with za'atar (a Mideast spice mix)? A kimchi schmear? That's pure Portland.

Steven Smith's artisanal teas appeared on every menu and I wanted to seek out the source. His tranquil shop, Steven Smith Teamaker, and tasting room is under a freeway ramp in northwest Portland, next door to a branch of charcuterie-maker Olympic Provisions Northwest. So I scored some No. 18 Brahmin black tea and took home a couple of salami sticks as well.

Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times' restaurant critic. Contact her at providencecicero@aol.com

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