What has happened to my beloved Caesar salad? I have witnessed its noble existence tarnished with corn, pesto chicken, Thai shrimp skewers and namby-pamby watered-down dressing. This American fave has been hijacked by ladies-who-lunch, the "dressing on the side" set who can't handle the burn of garlic, the salty bite of anchovy, almost-too-big croutons and the assertive tang of lemon. Not that brawn is everything, but I am so tired of the bitch-slap of garlic versions that offer little else.

Would Caesar Cardini, a small-time restaurateur from Tijuana, have made it big with a ho-hum country-club salad? No. But he wouldn't have ascended to the epicurean hall of fame for a dressing so strong that forced his 1924 clientele to shudder with gastric pain either. He knew balance was key-if only he were around today to tell everyone else.

I, foodie, am here in the defense of Cardini's real Caesars. And here's what happened when I went out in Portland to find 'em.

Henry's 12th Street Tavern (10 NW 12th Ave., 227-5320) For $6.99, you get five anemic whole Romaine leaves slathered with a cloak of something reminiscent of Wishbone Italian dressing. A pebbly grating of salty Pecorino Romano cheese and four gigantic sweet cornbread "croutons" made me do a double take of the menu: Was this even what I ordered?

Pizzicato (4217 NE Fremont St., 493-2808, and other locations) Once the double vision subsided after the first bite of the viciously garlicky dressing, the picture of sadly bruised lettuce pieces-mostly the white parts-and a waxy julienne of domestic parmesan cheese appeared ($3.50-$9). All garlic, nothing else. Maybe in Transylvania, but not here, not ever again.

Pazzo (627 SW Washington St., 228-1515) I got a mountain of whole leaves, some of which were, gasp, escarole ($8). Although I was skeptical, doubt soon gave way to a respectably bland, creamy dressing almost saved by copious shards of real imported Grana Padano cheese (a kissing cousin of Parmigiano Reggiano). I didn't need an Altoid after eating my salad, though, so the hunt continued.

El Gaucho (319 SW Broadway, 227-8794) Just like the mythical macho-men from Argentina, this version ($7.95 per person, minimum of two people) was potent and cocky. I could've controlled the chemistry as it was prepared tableside, but the veteran waiter seemed to know better, so I relented. Torn lettuce twisted itself around a coddled egg concoction complete with anchovies and grated parm that made it really hard to put the fork down-it also made it difficult to put the antacid down later.

Gotham Bldg. Tavern (2240 N Interstate Ave., 235-2294) This new ripe haunt's use of escarole hearts-instead of lettuce altogether-had me really suspicious about this "Caesar-style" salad ($9). But the leaves weren't bitter, just more crisp than Romaine, so as to hold up the big, honking anchovies parading across the top. The citrus flavors gave way to creamy garlic, then a hint of salty fish, then fresh pepper. Wow, this preparation took guts. I could tell the chefs-Naomi Hebberoy and Tommy Habetz-really loved Caesars as much as I do.

So, with Cardini avenged and antacids in hand, I moved on-feeling a craving for a really great salad roll comin' on.