Where I grew up, barbecue meant pork ribs bathed in a sweet sauce. Twenty years ago, most places outside the South didn't have restaurants serving pulled pork, let alone such exotic fare as beef ribs or sliced brisket with a thick black barque.
So it probably makes sense that I went nuts for Texas brisket once I first encountered it—in Texas, before it became a niche foodstuff available in almost any big city, like deep-dish pizza or fried cheese curds. Ever since Podnah's, it seems every serious Portland barbecue restaurant has pledged its allegiance to the Lone Star flag.
Which is what makes the reborn Clay's Smokehouse (2865 SE Division St., 503-327-8534, clayssmokehouse.com) such a surprising treat. The old Clay's closed in June 2016 and is now a vegetarian Thai spot. Truth be told, I was never a big fan of the place. The new Clay's opened across the street in December and has new owners, Matt Hurley and Mike Bender. The old owners, the Slymans, are both managers. The fare is still old-school, soul food-inspired 'cue—this is a place that serves fried catfish alongside its smoked hot link. But the revived Clay's has a renewed spirit and much-improved attention to detail.
My first piece of advice: Get the wings. I'm ambivalent about smoked wings, because of the oft-soggy texture. But the ones at Clay's (four for $6, eight for $12) manage to thread the needle, with taut flesh that's rich in smoke and slides off the bone. They're lavished in a deeply earthy and spicy sauce, and might be my new favorite wings in town.
I'm also a fan of the nachos ($12, add chicken or pork for $3), which are a new addition to the menu. They come in a hulking portion with red bean chili, sweet-spicy pickled jalapeños and a slathering of a garlicky white sauce. We got them with the heavily shredded pulled pork, which came in a heaping portion for the $3 price tag.
The ribs ($16 with fries, toast and a side) are another highlight. They're heavily smoked to start and then charred on the broiler before serving. They're on the soft side and come drenched in a dark red sauce you're almost guaranteed to make a mess with. These are dad ribs, but I found them to be flawlessly executed both times I tried them. I recommend the extra-crisp cabbage slaw jammed with poppy seeds as your side. The mac 'n' cheese, which has a thick roof of crisped yellow cheddar, is another good option.
One of the more unique things about Clay's is that it offers two fish dishes, pan-fried catfish and smoked salmon. Both were well-executed, though the salmon's texture was a little tougher than I'd hope—serving hot-smoked fish to order is tough. The other disappointment was the cocktails, which are new. They have promising recipes but are made by the servers and tend to end up a little heavy on the ice and light on nuance.
But then there's the desserts, which are outrageously good. They're made by Grandma Jean Slyman, who makes them special for Clay's. According to the servers, she comes in during off-hours a few times a week to make them, leaving explicit instructions on how to serve them. We tried them all during our four visits and found everything to be outstanding, including the honkin' huge slice of the best chocolate peanut butter pie I've had north of the Mason-Dixon line and an appropriately decadent mud pie. But the star of the show is Grandma Jean's pineapple upside down cake, which can stand up to any dessert in town right now. It's the texture of mousse and has a crackling sugar sauce.
It's the perfect way to end a surprisingly perfect meal at this born-again barbecue gem.
Clay's Smokehouse, 2865 SE Division St., 503-327-8534, clayssmokehouse.com. 11 am-10 pm Sunday-Wednesday, 11 am-11 pm Thursday-Saturday.