Salvador Molly’s offers a taste of the tropics

If it seems that summer will stretch into December this year, wait until you step inside Salvador Molly's, where a permanently sunny atmosphere pervades come wind, sleet or hail. The vitality of Salvador Molly's is half the reason to go to the Caribbean-by-way-of-Mexico restaurant nestled in a Hillsdale strip mall. The other reason, naturally, is for a bellyful of Molly's signature pirate cooking: rich, rib-sticking food with all the spice, smoke and mojo of Latin cuisines and a dash of Northwest flavor thrown in for balance.

The festive lighting, brightly colored walls and cheeky decorations Ñ an Elvis shrine complete with a Velvet Elvis and tabloid clippings, another shrine to heat, composed of photos of the brave diners who can put away habanero chili-cheese fritters Ñ set the stage for a fun dining experience.

After choosing among tables in the outdoor patio, main room or glassed-in sun porch, a waiter appears with a pitcher of water and bowl of in-the-shell peanuts to stay your hunger. You need only to listen for the crackle beneath your feet to figure out what to do with the shells. How often do you get to throw your food around in a restaurant? No need to worry about a mess your mom would gasp at; Salvador Molly's is all about having fun and taking it easy.

Don't let a handful of peanuts dissuade you from ordering an appetizer. Starters such as arepas (corn griddlecakes) and bollitos, black-eyed pea fritters, don't show up often on Portland menus and are worth trying. Sal's Palm Caesar Salad, irresistible in its description Ñ 'crispy romaine tossed with creamy Caesar dressing, topped with cotija cheese, hearts of palm, marinated cactus strips, fresh tomato, red chili croutons and Yucatan pickled onions' Ñ fails to live up to expectations due to overzealous dressing and soggy cactus, though the uncommon hearts of palm are a nice touch.

Salvador Molly's has become well-known and adored for its Yucatan chicken and artichoke and cotija tamales, whose reach now extends to the Portland Farmers' Market where the tamales are sold ready-to-eat or to take home.

Tamales are difficult to master but Molly's does an admirable job, especially with the unusual artichoke number, a great treat for vegetarians. The restaurant now prepares them three ways: traditional steamed; fried and topped with cheese; and the Baracho, which takes either a steamed or deep-fried tamale and drenches it in red-chili enchilada sauce and cheese. The original steamed is still the best.

Though impossible to eat with your hands, the overstuffed Ensenada fish taco has many redeeming qualities. It's got a thicker batter and more crunch than its counterparts at taquerias and comes with a wonderful melange of toppings including crema, pickled onions and crispy red cabbage. Another hit, Tamarindo pork ribs, is best consumed when really, really hungry. The moist, foot-long ribs are served with cornbread, red beans and tropical slaw atop an intimidating mountain of mashed potatoes.

Desserts change daily but are certain to act as an antidote to the 'packing-heat' entrees. A recent selection of homey rice pudding topped with fresh lemon jam was just the thing to chase a spicy shrimp roti, though again, the portion was huge. Rest assured that you'll depart Salvador Molly's well stuffed and sun-kissed no matter which way the wind blows outside.

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