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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