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Out of the ordinary: try something a little different

Cafe Azul

Those who don't care for Mexican food could be converted by a single dinner at Cafe Azul. After receiving the national recognition it deserves in a snazzy Gourmet spread last fall, Azul keeps striding toward greatness.

You won't find a better tamale in Portland than Azul's shredded chicken number. Sealed in dense, soft masa, the tamales reveal tender chicken morsels, carrots and raisins. Depending on the night, tamales can contain duck, plantains and a 26-ingredient-strong mole or beef, potatoes and red chili sauce.

You haven't really had a proper relleno, until you've tried Azul's fire-roasted poblano chile stuffed with rice, nuts and fruit and topped with walnut sauce to neutralize the chili's heat. A sparkling fresh salad composed of golden beets, blood orange segments, toasted Marcona almonds and mixed greens also serves as a cooling counterpart to spicy dishes.

If you can stomach the $8.75 price tag of the house margarita, you won't be disappointed by the smooth medley of Sauza Commemorativo anejo tequila, Cointreau and fresh lime juice.

Ñ Christina Melander

Bottom line: Inventive, but true to regional Mexican cooking, this is the best south-of-the border fare in town.

Serving: Dinner

Entree prices: $17-$26.50

Address/phone: 112 N.W. Ninth Ave., 503-525-4422

Ca–ita

It will take awhile to get to know Ca–ita: Her menu is vast, but there are discoveries to be made on the beverage page alone, like the materva, or Cuban Yerba Mate Soda.

But you will feel like a native the moment you bite into your first platos of black beans and rice, empanadas or croquetas. Questions are answered by a friendly staff eager to explain all the dishes, which range from Iberian-Creole classics such as salt cod in a salsa to humble Cuban standards such as the pork sandwich.

The Plato Comunista is the peanut butter and jelly sandwich of the nation of Cuba. It's a light meal served on a large colorful plate. The black beans are served in a mug, and there is an earthy jumble of rice, yuca (a starchy root vegetable similar to a potato) and a salad.

And you can't go wrong with the workingman's Cuban sandwich. The roast pork is tender and juicy and perfectly combines with the smoked ham, Swiss cheese and roll.

Ca–ita's happy hour, la hora del amigo, is held from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. every day, and Latin jazz is performed Friday and Saturday nights. Ca–ita rolls out a late-night menu at 11 p.m. daily that is served until 2:30 a.m.

Ñ Michaela Bancud

Bottom line: Died and gone to Havana

Serving: Lunch and dinner

Entree price: $6-$13

Address/phone: 503 W. Burnside St., 503-274-4050

Lucere

With its pared-down design and energized new menu, Lucere is a complete 180-degree flip from its stuffy, unimaginative predecessor, the Esplanade at RiverPlace.

Chubby chairs tuck into dark-wood tables stripped of cloths, and intricate basket-weave chandeliers cast a rosy glow on the riverfront dining room.

Chef Pascal Sauton continues to refine the seasonally charged menu, introducing winsome appetizers such as soup and sandwich Ñ a cold-curing combination of butternut squash bisque and grilled cheese with truffles Ñ and house-smoked salmon with avocado, lime cream and avocado oil on toasted brioche. The latter is a fine prelude to firm sturgeon wrapped with pancetta or a bouillabaisse of regional seafood in a lobster-saffron broth.

The three-course fixed price menu is offered nightly for $25, an astounding value that lets you choose among three starters, four entrees (including the sturgeon and sharp goat cheese ravioli) and three of pastry chef Paul Lemieux's unparalleled desserts.

A special note to chocolate lovers: You may have met your match in the oozy phyllo chocolate dumplings served with tarragon ice cream and chocolate-olive oil sauce.

Ñ C.M.

Bottom line: The waterfront view no longer reigns as the best reason to visit.

Serving: Breakfast, lunch and dinner

Entree prices: $14.50-$25

Address/phone: 1510 S.W. Harbor Way, 503-228-3233

Navarre

Suffering from been-there, done-that syndrome? Try airy new wine bar Navarre.

The menu Ñ its choices and presentation Ñ wakes you from dining doldrums. Long and skinny, it lists about 25 choices, loosely grouped into bar snacks, appetizers, salads, starches and entrees, though you won't see any headings as such.

Bucking the trend of elaborately detailed dishes, descriptions that tell you where the

baby lettuces were grown, the waters from which a fish was plucked and exactly how those organic fingerling potatoes are prepared, the menu simply reads: Braised greens. Lentils and beets.

Grilled quail with mustard is about as explicit as it gets. The diner's job is to craft a meal from as few or as many dishes (all are petite, tapas-sized portions) as desired, marking items on the checklist and turning it in to the waiter. Having grown accustomed to highly informative menus, basing an order on Navarre's oblique list will be a leap of faith for some.

But you will be richly rewarded for your daring. Don't miss chef and co-owner John Taboada's

gorgeous foie gras, delicate crab crepes and frico (crispy fried cow's milk cheese).

Ñ C.M.

Bottom line: Refreshing menu and simple, expert cooking

Serving: Dinner

Entree prices: $2-$10

Address/phone: 10 N.E. 28th Ave., 503-232-3555

Typhoon

Portland has as many Thai restaurants as it has cloudy days. And like gray days, many of these places are indistinguishable one from the next.

Typhoon, though, stands apart like a thundering storm cloud. Located inside the stylish Hotel Lucia on Southwest Broadway downtown, Typhoon has a small bar with a glowing orange top in the front and a stone wall to divide the foyer and the often-crowded dining room.

The large, open dining room is alive with the sound of clattering plates and conversation on most nights. A mix of tourists and residents on the town for the evening sit at tables tangled up with steaming bowls of Tom Kah Gai Soup, Drunken Noodles or plates of Panang Curry. Appetizers Ñ try the fresh salad rolls and the dumplinglike Bags of Gold Ñ are pretty and tasty.

At Typhoon you can get old favorites such as phad thai and green curry. But it's the inventive options, the Fish on Fire and the Five-Spice Crispy Duck, that give the menu its electricity. It's good to remember that at Typhoon 'medium' can really be hot, so beware the chili flakes atop those yummy Tom Yum Noodles and have plenty of ice water nearby.

Ñ M.B.

Bottom line: Thai food that will knock the wind out of you

Serving: Breakfast, lunch and dinner

Entree prices: $8.95-$22.95

Address/phone: 410 S.W. Broadway, 503-224-8285