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Cued Up

People's Pig and Smokehouse Tavern up Portland's pit potential.

Now, finally, we've got a good old-fashioned rib burn-off brewing thanks to strong openings from the People's Pig and Smokehouse Tavern.

So far, most of the chatter has been about the People's Pig—partly because of the story behind this dim, smoky little hole, and partly because of its incredible pork shoulder.

Like Muirhead, pitmaster Cliff Allen started in a food cart, which he operated downtown for five years before the owner of the Tropicana soul-food joint on North Williams Avenue retired. Rather than sell the space—a shotgun shack in the shadow of a sparkly new New Seasons, it's gotta be worth more dead than alive—they turned the pits over to a new tenant. Allen got a budget version of the rustic build-out so many restaurateurs pay designers and pickers to re-create: old booths with attached coat racks, wood paneling with an exposed fuse box and green vinyl stools that could've come out of a Mississippi lunch counter. It's refreshingly uncalculated—on one visit, the soundtrack came from '90s trip-hoppers Morcheeba.

People's menu is limited to three meats—ribs, pork shoulder and smoked fried chicken—and you only need one. That's not the ribs, which are unremarkable, mainly because the house sauce is flat and sugary.

And it's not the smoked fried chicken, an idea that seems stupidly brilliant until you try it. After so much prep, the meat ends up dry, dark and leathery, the breading so fragile it falls off on the first nibble. It's like eating a sawdust-covered baseball glove.

But that pork shoulder is a revelation. Call it pig brisket: These thick slabs of shoulder have a beautiful crust of charred fat to lock in the juices and are cut with the grain to give the muscle a pleasantly fibrous texture. It's reason enough to go.

Most of People's sides and drinks need some work. The jojos lack the snap of well-fried potato, the coleslaw is too sweet, with an off-putting herbal note, and a mint julep is served with a huge mound of pebbly crushed ice that makes it tough to suck out the booze. The greens are nice and stewy, and keep that last little snap, but we have only Crystal to season them. (If it ain't Frank's RedHot, then, well, why ain't it?)

After two visits to each, I'm a lot more excited about Smokehouse Tavern, the new restaurant from Smokehouse 21 owner BJ Smith that sits in the weirdly suburbanized Buckman plaza that also houses Nostrana. If "tavern" makes it sound small, it's actually huge compared to its sibling, with a wall of mirrors and fancy taxidermy, and a long bar with purse hooks mounted by the stools. The music is all club rap, from House of Pain to Fiddy to stunna shade-era Kanye. The cocktail program is large and serious, starting with an Old Fashioned that gets a smoky sweetness from maple syrup and housemade barbecue bitters. If you'd rather your drink contrast with the meaty flavors, the "Love Is the Drug" is a little like a piña colada with fresh pineapple, Amontillado sherry and celery bitters.

Deviled eggs with a piece of smoked sausage on top make for an ideal amuse-bouche. The ribs are still the best in town—what we found when we tried pretty much all of them last year. The pulled pork is finely shredded and impossibly rich, perfect in the sandwich when slathered in the house's mustard sauce.

Here the brisket is actual brisket, and it's impressive: smoky and well-trimmed, soft enough to tear with a fork while keeping its snap. (Don't bother with the burnt ends: The bits are cut into 2-inch cubes and do not have a favorable barque-to-meat ratio.) I'd be happy with the brisket plate paired with any of the sides—all hew close to the familiar recipes, and none disappointed—especially the mustardy fingerling potato salad and a little bowl of pork-heavy greens.

Well, unless you want something lighter, in which case you should opt for the smoked steelhead, a slab of flaky trout that separates into tender layers of light and salty flesh with a nudge of the fork. Yeah, Podnah’s makes a smoked trout, too. No, it ain’t better than this. Right now, there might not be anything better than this. 

EAT: Smokehouse Tavern, 1401 SE Morrison St., Suite 117, 971-279-4850, The People's Pig, 3217 N Williams Ave., 282-2800,