Meatballs! Tacos! Burgers! N.E. Portland strip of restaurants swims in local kitchen talent

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Craig Miller enjoys a chorizo taco with a Negro Modelo beer at Uno Mas, a taco bar among the Ocean collection of eateries in Northeast Portland.
First it was food trucks. Then it was pods. The latest stage in the evolution of micro-dining is the Ocean, a collection of small, counter-service restaurants tucked together in a single long, low building.

In other words, it’s a strip mall.

But the world would be a better place if all strip malls were like this. There’s quality, variety and a sense of humor. Picnic tables take the place of a parking strip. Instead of dreary, predictable franchises, the Ocean is more like an all-star game: proven local talent, taking fewer risks than usual.

Remember Caprial? Yes, Portland had a first-name-only food celebrity in the 1990s. Caprial’s cooking show was nationally broadcast on public television, and her restaurant in Westmoreland was one of Portland’s best for many years.

Now, she’s doing wings.

At Basa Basa, you don’t choose whether or not to have chicken wings, you only choose what kind. Three vivid styles, each based on Asian seasonings, are served with sweet Hawaiian-style macaroni salad and white rice.

The Basa Basa original sauce is messy, red and sticky, with sweetness to counteract the medium-hot spice. You will need extra napkins, but happily, none of the sauces here interfere with the crunchiness of the breading underneath.

The teriyaki has a little less heat, and glows instead with ginger. My favorite is the Thai style, with a powerful wave of cilantro, backed by lime. The wings are meaty and generally tender, although a few were a bit dry.

Also narrowing his focus, Adam Berger of Tabla is making a study of meatballs. His contribution to the Ocean is 24th and Meatballs, where you can get a sub, spaghetti, a slider, a salad — anything you want, as long as it contains meatballs.

The space is drafty and uncomfortable, and the slogans on the walls are unprintable. It’s about as far away from Berger’s last venture, the luxurious Ten 01, as you could get. Although 24th and Meatballs is meant to be a crowd-pleaser, it doesn’t feel cynically so. There’s love and talent in this little spot, and the bowl of polenta, meatballs, and tomato sauce is one of the coziest things you could eat.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - The Ocean's 24th and Meatballs features meatballs galore, including classic tomato basil (left) and hazelnut arugala pesto sliders.The polenta’s texture is just right, slightly rugged but also creamy, buttery, and cheesy. You select your meatballs individually. There’s a spicy, slightly crumbly Italian, made with beef, veal and pork. The pork meatball with cheese and chilis is a little like sausage, and the chicken meatball is surprisingly juicy, springy and satisfying. There’s also a vegan meatball, and a number of sides that would work for vegetarians.

Kids can take advantage of an after- school special: a school ID gets you two sliders and a Pepsi for $5. Adults get a similar deal, with an Oly instead of soda, during happy hour.

Interesting salsas

Around the corner at Uno Mas, tacos are the one and only offering, and yet your options can be overwhelming. Small tortillas are filled to overflowing with beef, fish, pork, cactus and more, each with a personality of its own.

But the best tacos seem, in general, to be the meaty ones. The carnitas is porky and juicy, with crisp edges, and the barbacoa and lingua have particularly rich, beefy flavors. There’s a cool, fresh rockfish taco, and a spicy shrimp taco. I didn’t like the octopus as much — it was a little stringy. A simple fried cheese taco was bland.

Probably the best is the chicharron — crunchy pork skins and creamy avocado, in just the right proportions. There are a few fresh, interesting salsas, although most tacos are so well-seasoned that salsa is unnecessary. Beer is sold in quart bottles.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - The Ocean now hosts five new niche, counter-service restaurants, with more opening soon. The proprietor is Oswaldo Bibiano, owner of two higher-end Mexican restaurants, Autentica and Mextiza. Like his cohorts at the Ocean, he’s getting back to basics without devolving.

Slowburger is a little different. It’s simply a place to get a Slow Bar burger, without having to go to Slow Bar. Not that there’s anything wrong with Slow Bar, except that it’s a bar. You can’t take your kids there, and probably not your parents.

This is a much more streamlined way to get the famous burger, or to try new variations, including a veggie burger. There’s a fire pit outside, making outdoor seating a possibility, even this time of year.

In the summer, the whole complex will open its windows and roll up its garage doors and feel a lot more like a food cart pod. And it will still have things that pods don’t. Real bathrooms, for one, and unified hours. In fact, the hours are more convenient that at most restaurants. Not many are open all day, every day, and into the night.

The Ocean (Slowburger, Uno Mas, Basa Basa, 24th and Meatballs), 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily, Northeast Glisan Street between 23rd and 24th avenues

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