In honor of the SmartyPants Free Sample Bonanza going on right now in Costco’s throughout the Pacific Northwest (and Utah), I headed to Portland to check out the healthy food and fitness scene.
But how do you choose the healthiest things to do and eat in one of the healthiest cities in America? To narrow down the seemingly infinite number of options, I decided to just do “new.”
For 72 hours,
I would try anything in Portland that I’ve never tried before.
VEGAN STRIP CLUB – CASA DIABLO
When my co-worker suggested that I check out Casa Diablo, Portland’s “Infamous Vegan House of Sin,” my initial response was: Ah, no, thanks.
I had never been to a strip club and never had the desire to attend, but I knew from previous experience that pole dancing is definitely a rigorous physical feat. As a food and fitness writer on assignment to try new things, a vegan strip club actually fell right into my wheelhouse.
So I headed into the den of meatless iniquity…
I can’t say that Casa Diablo is unlike any other strip club because I’ve never been to any other strip club, but it was nothing like the ones I’ve seen on TV. The women were all different shapes and sizes. Some – a lot, actually – were covered in tattoos. I was surprised to find a good mix of both men and women in the crowd, and there wasn’t much stripping going on, it was more, performance art, plus or minus a G-string.
For about an hour, I sat across from the stage, eating vegan yellow curry, and watching in awe as women literally defied gravity. One spun vertically, upside-down, holding on by only one hand. Another whirled around the pole horizontal, using just the strength of her thighs. It was like nude Cirque du Soleil. In fact, as I learned from a naked lady in the bathroom, many of the dancers at Casa Diablo are actual circus performers.
Now, I get that strip clubs are pretty controversial, and I’m still not sure where I stand on the subject – that’s a discussion for another blog – but, regardless of your feelings on bearing your nether regions in public,
The performances at Casa Diablo are an incredible display of female strength, grace, individuality, and beauty.
In addition to my amazement at the performances, I was surprised a how being in the presence of these women made me feel about myself. In the past, I always thought going to a place like a strip club would make me feel bad, or, less attractive by comparison. But being around women of all different body types, in various states of undress, actually made me more comfortable and proud of my body. There were big boobs and small boobs, buns of steel and rotund rumps, cellulite and six packs, but they all owned their bodies. Every woman on stage was confident, proud, and sexy.
This was their house. We were just lucky to be let in.
GLUTEN-FREE ETHIOPIAN – ABYSSINIAN KITCHEN
I had wanted to try Ethiopian food for a long time, the only thing stopping me was the fact that I generally try and avoid gluten, and a bread called injera is big part of Ethiopian cuisine. Instead of a knife and fork, injera is used as the primary utensil to scoop and eat the stews, salads, and sauces.
Traditionally, injera is gluten-free, made with only teff flour, salt, and water. In the United States, however, injera is often made with a mix of teff and wheat flour, or teff and barley flour. But I was in a city where “gluten-free” signs are as ubiquitous as stop signs. If there was ever a place to find traditionally made injera, it was Portland. And find it I did, only two blocks from my Airbnb, at the Abyssinian Kitchen.
I had no idea what to order for my meal, so I asked my server, who was also the owner. He suggested Kitfo, “A marinated and minced lean beef dish.” By “marinated,” he meant raw. While committed to trying new things, I drew the line at raw meat. Maybe next time. Instead, I opted for sautéed lamb cubes (Kilwa Beggie) and the vegetarian sampler (Beyaynetu), and I was not disappointed.
Whether you’re gluten-free or friendly, I highly recommend the Abyssinian Kitchen – good wine, great service, and, according to Yelp, some of the best Ethiopian in the city. A solid five stars from me!
AERIAL YOGA – DIVA DEN STUDIO
After watching the performances at Casa Diablo, I had the deep desire to get inverted and gain some altitude myself. My solution: aerial yoga at Diva Den Studio. The class was called “Center of Gravity,” and turned out to be one part Pilates, one part boot camp, and one part restorative yoga, all while hanging from a stretchy fabric sling.
The sling made familiar moves like mountain climbers and forearm plank challenging in a completely new way, but I was totally hooked once we started the “flying” part of the class. At first, I was a little wary. As I stood in the sling, about to attempt the “Batgirl” backflip (pictured), I had momentary flashes of my arms giving out and plummeting to my death two feet below. But our instructor assured us we would all be fine.
Thanks to my experience on the flying trapeze, I knew if she said we could do it, we probably could, and I did. All I had to do was fall back, trust myself, and use one heck of a lot of upper body strength.
Aerial yoga, while fun, is incredibly physically challenging. In between each flip, I had to stop and catch my breath. I couldn’t stop thinking about the Casa Diablo dancers, who do this spinning around, 50 feet in the air, no sling, no clothes. My admiration continues to grow.
The only bad part about the class was that I only had time for one. Diva Den offers newbies a trial week to experiment with everything from “Poppin’ On Da Pole,” to “Bottoms Up!,” “Dance Party Hustle!,” “Afternoon Delight,” and “ATL Bootyclap,” – a class entirely devoted to, “shaking and bouncing your booty.” Um, yes, please.
FILIPINO COMMUNITY COOKING CLASS – ZENGER FARM
If you know me, you know that I’m a big fan of farm-to-table food. Ironically, I’ve never actually been to a farm and eaten its food. I’ve been to farmer’s markets, and farm-to-table restaurants, but never to the farm itself.
Luckily for me, Portland is surrounded by hundreds of farms, and, unlike LA, you don’t have to fight three hours of traffic to get to them. Through one of the many online resources dedicated to helping the people of Portland eat local, I found Zenger Farms, which just so happened to be hosting a Filipino cooking workshop during my stay.
My class was taught by Chef Josselyn Eby, and our menu consisted of three courses of mung beans. That may not sound too exciting, but consider this: In just 100 grams of mung beans, there are 1,246 milligrams of potassium, 16 grams of fiber, 24 grams of protein, 13 percent of the RDA of calcium, 37 percent of iron, 20 percent of vitamin B6 and 47 percent of magnesium!
Even more astounding was how Josselyn turned each course into a totally different taste experience. We had a mung bean stir-fry, a mung bean curry over white rice, and even a mung bean dessert. It looked pretty questionable – the words “gruel,” came to mind – but this was actually my favorite of all three dishes. I’m not sure how mung beans, coconut milk, cinnamon, and sugar could come together to make something so good, but it was incredible. I had to stop myself from going back for more.
Zenger Farms holds a cooking class on the first Monday of every month. Each class features a different chef from the local community, cooking a different type of ethnic cuisine. The point is to help expose people to different cultures and styles of cooking. The classes are open all ages, donation based, and you don’t need to bring a friend or any previous cooking skills to attend – all are provided.
INTRO TO HIP HOP – VEGA DANCE LAB
Inspired by Casa Diablo, and spurred by my success at aerial yoga, I decided my next Portland fitness “first” would be a hip-hop dance class. In the spirit of full disclosure, I did take a year of hip-hop dance in the 8th grade (which culminated in a recital involving crushed velvet bellbottoms and a crop top). But that was over 15 years ago. To this day, choreographed dancing has never been my thing. All the rights and lefts and counting in your head while listening to the music and trying not to look constipated, I find very difficult.
I was nervous going in (I actually thought about turning the car around when I couldn’t find parking), but the class got off to a promising start. The teacher, Kindell, was warm and friendly, the music was great, everyone was laughing and joking, and nothing seemed to indicate impending doom.
Kindell started running through the moves, and, although everyone else seemed to be picking them up MUCH faster than me, I was actually doing all right… Until we got to the chorus. That’s when things got ugly. There were hand moves opposite of feet moves, side jumps, kicks, turns, jigging, clapping, snapping.
I was totally, utterly, and completely lost.
I stood in the back, dumbfounded, while the rest of the group danced on. I could feel the hot, burning sensation creep into my cheeks. The tears were welling up…
Oh my God. I’m almost 30 years old and I’m crying. In a beginner dance class.
Yup. So that happened. But I cry at dog food commercials. Mostly I was just frustrated because I couldn’t do it and I wanted so badly to be able to do it. The girls (and guy) looked so sexy and confident and like they were having so much fun. And I wanted to have that fun.
After the class, Kindell told me I did great and not to feel bad – everyone else had been learning the dance for the past four weeks. Ah. So that’s why they all seemed to pick it up so fast! Not only did this make me feel much better, it gave me hope. I promised myself that I would find a dance class once I got back to L.A.
If you’re interested in amping up your d-floor skills, or even just challenging yourself to do something you’ve never done before, take a dance class – Vega Dance Lab is excellent if you’re in the Portland area. But, wherever you go, I suggest calling ahead and asking when is the best time for a beginner to start. Don’t show up the last week, unless you want to wind up weeping in a corner to the tune of Justin Bieber.
MEET YOUR MEAT – SUDAN FARMS
After visiting my veggies at Zenger Farms, I decided to take my farm-to-tabling one step further. As a meat eater, I’ve never gotten up close and personal with an animal before I’ve consumed it (unless you count the lobsters in the tank at Red Lobster…)
I found SuDan Farms, a farm on the Molalla Farm Loop, which raises grass-fed lamb and pastured poultry. Two things immediately appealed to me about SuDan farms: 1) They raise lamb, which is my very favorite meat to eat, and 2) When I called the number on their website, Dan himself picked up and told me to come on down.
When I arrived, I had the whole farm to myself. Dan spent an hour giving me the full tour. We met the lambs, chickens, ducks, and geese. Dan explained to me how they raise them, which animals are for eating, and which are for breeding, producing wool, and laying eggs. At the end of my visit, Dan loaded me up with a pound of lamb sausage, a bag of dehydrated lamb strips, and two sticks of lamb jerky. Talk about Pacific Northwestern hospitality!
My favorite part was getting to see and touch a real sheepskin – right off the sheep – and learning how Dan and his wife, Susie, transform the skins into beautiful, finished shearling products they sell at farmer’s markets.
From the wool and skin, to the meat, bones, and organs, SuDan farm makes use of every part of their lambs.
Before I visited, I wondered how I would feel about my carnivorous ways once I spent time with the animals, but I wasn’t disgusted when I saw the sheepskin, nor did I feel strange about promptly eating the lamb jerky on my drive back to Portland. The animals at SuDan farm lead a healthy, happy life, and it was heartening to see that they help serve a multitude of purposes, even after their lives are over.
Unfortunately, not all animals are raised in this humane manner. That’s why it’s so important to visit a farm if you have the chance. Visiting a farm changes the way you think about food and your appreciation of the earth, the animals, and the people that bring it to your plate.
Paying $6.75 for a pound of ground meat at a grocery store is a lot different than paying that price to a real person who’s name you know, and who’s animals you’ve met.
When you support local agriculture, your money is going towards helping farmers and their animals continue to live good lives – and that makes driving to a farm or farmer’s market worth the extra effort. Even if you have to fight a little bit of traffic to get there.
If you’re in the Portland area, you can find SuDan farms at the Portland Farmer’s Market every Saturday throughout the year, and at the Milwaukee Farmer’s Market every Sunday during the summer.
For more information on getting hands-on with your food at one of Portland’s many farms, check out these links:
DANCE HALL FITNESS – PULSEPDX
oAfter the strip club and the hip-hop class, PulsePDX, “Part health club, part nightclub,” seemed to fit perfectly with the theme of my trip. I signed up for Dancehall Fit! – a class consisting of, “Jamaican Dancehall moves blended with elements of Soca, Samba, Traditional Caribbean, and AfroBeat dances,” and convinced my SmartyPants coworker, Bethany, to go with me.
I promised Bethany that I was not an experienced dancer (the crying story helped) and that we could partake in a happy hour cocktail (or two) before the class. Hey, after my hip-hop “episode,” I figured a little liquid courage couldn’t hurt.
The studio definitely looked more like a nightclub than a gym. There was an elevated stage and a DJ booth. The lights were down – except for the multicolored ones reflecting off the disco ball – and, most noticeably, there were no mirrors. Most dance classes, exercise classes, and gyms are covered with mirrors so you can make sure you’re completing the moves with the right form.
But sometimes – especially when it comes to me, dancing, and a couple of cocktails – proper form is not the most important thing, and this class seemed to get that.
At PlusePDX, the most important thing is that you let loose and have a kick-ass time.
And that we did.
There was no running through basic steps, or time for question and answer. The teacher, Alia, danced, and we did our best to mirror what she was doing. At first, I was a little awkward, wondering: If she’s going left, do we go right? But I quickly realized it didn’t matter. There was a general movement consensus, and, otherwise, people were pretty much doing their own thing.
Some were great, others, not so great, but, honestly, I didn’t even notice. One of the best effects of the low lights and lack of mirrors, was that you weren’t worrying about what anyone else was doing, and, after about ten minutes, you forgot to even worry about yourself.
There were women of all ages, body types, in all different kinds of clothes, and men too! Well, one man, but still, he twerked it out along with everyone else. It wasn’t perfect, but hey, who’s watching?
For my last food and fitness endeavor in Portland, I decided to stop by the Green Micro Gym – a gym that is powered by the energy of the people working out inside. Unfortunately, the gym was closed to the public, only open to members and outsiders by appointment. I had no appointment.
Luckily, there was a Pilates studio right next door. Before turning to leave, I thought to check their schedule, and, I was in luck – there was a GYROKINESIS® class starting in exactly one minute. I asked the instructor, Matt, if it would be okay if I dropped in, and he said sure.
So I joined three other students for 60 minutes of having no idea what I was doing.
This wasn’t the same kind of cluelessness that I had experienced in the dance classes – I literally had never heard of “gyrokinesis” before. I could have just dropped into a Greek sandwich making class for all I knew.
According to the website, GYROKINESIS®, “Unifies the sensory, respiratory, circulatory, muscular, nervous, and other systems of the body,” and offers similar benefits to those derived from dance, gymnastics, swimming, tai chi, and yoga.
The best way I can describe it, is deep breathing, stretching, and joint rotation while seated, either on a stool or on the ground. After the class, Matt explained that the practice is seated because most people’s bodies have grown accustomed to sitting. Performing the movements on a stool or on the ground takes your legs out of the equation and allows the spine more mobility.
While I breathed into places I didn’t know I could breathe into, and definitely felt looser after the class, what I found most interesting about this experience was that I was doing something where I had no idea what to expect.
Since I couldn’t think about what was to come, I had no other choice than to be in the moment.
It was like forced mindfulness. I just had to enjoy what I was doing, and try not to label it or think about what it was supposed to be doing for me, and that is something I definitely have never done before.
If you live in a city like Portland, sometimes the sheer number of awesome options can be overwhelming. You can easily wind up resorting to the restaurant on the corner, or the class that you’ve done a thousand times before because you know they’re good. This is the McDonalds Effect. Choosing something familiar or convenient is often easier than going with something weird, new, or slightly scary – what if it sucks?
But I encourage anyone reading, no matter where you live, and especially if you’re in the Portland area, to try a new healthy food or fitness option. You don’t have to tackle them all, just try a few that are new. You may laugh, learn a new skill, meet some new friends, develop newfound confidence, maybe even shed a tear, but, I promise, whatever you do, you’ll leave with a good story.
Know anyone who lives in Portland or is visiting soon? Share this with them!
Do you live in the Portland area? What are you favorite healthy food and fitness spots? We’d love to hear in the comments!
Posted on April 12, 2016