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October 19th, 2011 12:01 am BEN WATERHOUSE | Restaurant Guide

Restaurant Guide 2011: Podnah's Pit, Restaurant of the Year

In its new home on Northeast Killingsworth, the five-year-old restaurant is better than ever.

Rodney Muirhead prepares ribs for the smoker. - IMAGE: Jarod Opperman
The buildout took nine months. “It was a church before we bought it,” Muirhead says. “It had a drop ceiling with fluorescent lights and purple carpet. We completely gutted the whole thing.” The finished restaurant, designed by Kelley and architect Sue Firpo, is a wonder. Bright white walls reflect the light that streams through the building’s enormous windows, lending a warm glow to the banquettes, tables and bar crafted from enormous slabs of salvaged wood. The dining room seats 70, not counting the full bar. The staff has tripled in size. “I did not imagine something this big,” Muirhead says. “I’m still getting used to how big it is.”

Behind the scenes are even greater changes. The old Podnah’s kitchen was so cramped that Muirhead had to keep his smoker on the back patio and cook all the sides with countertop appliances; the whole setup would fit in the new kitchen’s walk-in fridge. The new galley is bigger than the old dining room, and encompasses a large prep space, a sprawling range, a small room full of chopped Willamette Valley oak and a new Ole Hickory Pits smoker fired, against the manufacturer’s instructions, entirely with wood. Its racks, which constantly rise and fall on a carousel to ensure even cooking, can hold up to 500 pounds of meat. Muirhead runs it from 5 am to 5 pm, seven days a week. 

The expanded restaurant has brought with it an expanded menu, including cocktails (heavy on fruit and brown spirits), eight beer taps, lots of side specials (a cheesy squash casserole was the highlight of a recent dinner) and even house-smoked bacons and hams on the horizon. But the heart of the Podnah’s experience remains the enormous plates of brisket and spareribs, served with two sides and moist, sweet cornbread speckled with fresh kernels. 

“We wanted to keep it as old-fashioned as possible,” Muirhead says of his barbecue, “and do it the way it was being done 50 or 100 years ago.” But what makes Podnah’s not only a fine barbecue joint but a great restaurant is not Luddism but Muirhead’s ability to simultaneously embrace past and present. If Podnah’s were a classic Texas-style restaurant, the sides would consist of sweet baked beans and a slice of white bread, and the flatware might be chained to the table. My favorite dishes are all deviations from the strictest Lone Star conventions: the lamb ribs, rubbed with cumin, salt and pepper, and smoked just to the edge of medium-well; the trout, which gets 90 minutes in the smoker and comes out tasting like fish candy; and the Brobdingnagian breakfast tacos, stuffed with potato, egg, pepper, onion and chorizo, which, for $7.75, remain the greatest brunch deal in town. Muirhead, like all of Portland’s great chefs, has melded a great culinary tradition with the Northwest’s peculiar bounty with a mix of reverence and invention. Perhaps the secret to great barbecue isn’t so easy after all.

Podnah’s Pit, 1625 NE Killingsworth St., 281-3700, podnahspit.com. 11 am-10 pm Monday-Friday, noon-10 pm Saturday-Sunday. Breakfast 9 am-1 pm Saturday-Sunday. $$

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