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Carolina boys bring thrill of March Madness to breakfast

Taste
by:  KATIE HARTLEY, Pine State’s Reggie Deluxe throws an egg in with fried chicken, bacon, cheddar and gravy. Diners may not even have room for that side of grits.

Through exercise, avoiding alcohol, drinking a lot of water and carefully keeping track of everything single thing I ate, I dropped a few pounds recently. Seven pounds in one week as a matter of fact. And that's not easy to do, especially when eating out is part of your job.

I deserved a treat for such an accomplishment and rewarded myself with a trip to Pine State Biscuits (3640 S.E. Belmont St., 503-236-3346, www.pinestatebiscuits.com), which is a little like an alcoholic celebrating a week of sobriety with a bottle of Jack Daniel's.

Everything's fattening at Pine State Biscuits. The enormous sandwich I ordered probably weighed as many pounds as I'd lost. I couldn't finish it. Even eating just half, I think I consumed my entire daily allowance of calories. But, man, it was good.

Patrons of the Portland Farmers Market at Portland State University (which, by the way, reopens April 5 - yippee!) are familiar with Pine State Biscuits.

Kevin Atchley, Walt Alexander and Brian Snyder opened their biscuit booth at the market in May 2006. It was an instant success with lines of people willing to wait a long time to get their biscuit fix.

Last month Atchley, Alexander and Snyder opened a tiny Pine State Biscuits restaurant on Southeast Belmont Street. (Don't worry; they'll still operate their biscuit booth at the market.) Turns out, a restaurant was part of the fellows' plan from the very beginning.

'The booth was an opportunity to sort of test the waters,' Atchley says. 'We wanted to reach out to other purveyors and get to know the customers.' When they opened the booth, all three of the North Carolina transplants were working full-time jobs. They could only afford to devote one day a week to biscuits.

Atchley worked for several years as a waiter and bartender at Park Kitchen. And it was Park Kitchen's owner, Scott Dolich, who suggested that opening a biscuit booth at the farmers market would be an excellent way to test the market for an actual biscuit restaurant or, as Atchley calls it, a 'biscuit kitchen.'

The space on Belmont Street is only 600 square feet including the kitchen. There are just four tables and a tight little counter with stools in the cramped but cozy spot. Atchley says that's typical of biscuit restaurants in the South. 'They're usually little shoe boxes; the difference is that in North Carolina, you'll find a biscuit kitchen every couple of blocks,' he says.

Soon an old refurbished church pew will be placed in front of the store, which will increase the amount of seating.

The Pine State menu includes biscuits with spreads like pimento cheese, butter and honey, or jam. You also can get a biscuit with fruit and whipped cream, which is as close to a dessert as you'll get at Pine State Biscuits. Then, of course, there are biscuits with sausage gravy. Vegetarians can choose biscuits with shiitake mushroom gravy.

The bulk of the menu is made up of biscuit sandwiches. The Moneyball is biscuits and gravy topped with an egg. The McIsley is a biscuit with fried chicken, pickles, mustard and honey. The Reggie is a biscuit with fried chicken, bacon and Tillamook cheddar cheese with gravy. Add a fried egg to that, and it's called the Reggie Deluxe.

The biscuits obviously are the basis of the entire menu, and they are very good. They're big, buttery, dense, and moist enough but still crumbly.

As I ate my way through the Reggie Deluxe sandwich with egg yolk and gravy dripping off my fork (there was no way I could eat it with my hands), I couldn't help thinking how great it would taste with a pint of cold beer. Happily, Atchley says they're hoping to add beer to the menu sometime soon.

The Reggie Deluxe is a terrific sandwich. If you need national proof, Esquire magazine recently named it one of the best sandwiches in the country. My only complaint was that it wasn't quite warm enough, the egg, gravy and biscuit were sufficiently toasty but the fried chicken was a bit chilly. Other than that, it was perfect.

Biscuits-and-gravy fans will appreciate Pine State's fine version of the classic American breakfast dish. (They'll probably appreciate the $5 price tag, too.)

Two side orders are listed on the Pine State Biscuits menu - hash browns and grits. The hash browns are pretty bland, made to order but nothing special, really. But the grits are sensational, my favorite item on the menu.

They're from Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston, where the corn is grown and hand-ground. To prepare the grits, Atchley says he uses only dairy, water, salt and pepper. But those simple ingredients equal an amazing, creamy and rich, bowl of flavor. (Ayers Creek corn grits are only available November through March but Atchley says he has a line on a couple of purveyors in South Carolina and Tennessee.)

Pine State Biscuits isn't the place to visit if you're trying to diet. Come here to break your diet. I bet you won't regret it … until you stand on the scale back home.

Pine State Biscuits is open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.