Reporting from Portland, Ore. — Nearly 3,000 miles already separate Casa Diablo from Newark City Hall. But this week, Cory Booker strove mightily to increase that distance.
After word leaked out that the ambitious young Newark mayor had held a brief Twitter flirtation with a comely exotic dancer here, his Senate campaign in New Jersey issued a statement downplaying the incident.
"The only mildly surprising thing about this story is the news that there's a vegan strip club in Portland," Booker's campaign said, indicating that the bachelor mayor knew neither Portland nor Casa Diablo, where one kind of flesh is happily embraced and another strictly prohibited.
Oregon's biggest metropolis may be recognized as the capital of the craft beer movement, or home to Powell's City of Books, the self-proclaimed biggest new-and-used bookstore in the world. The animal rights group PETA ranks Portland No. 2 on its Top 10 list of "vegan-friendly cities," behind Austin, Texas, and just ahead of Los Angeles. Perhaps less well-known, but equally telling, is Portland's triple-X heart and the legal history that makes it possible.
"This is the strip club capital of the world," said a 24-year-old woman who goes by the name of Dre and calls herself Casa Diablo's "house mother." "There aren't more than Vegas. Just more per capita. Portland is so different. That's our theme. Nudity is no big deal."
She smiled. Tossed a waterfall of dark hair. Clambered up the brass pole on Casa Diablo's elevated stage. Then dropped a dozen or so feet into a perfectly executed set of splits, her black, thigh-high boots gleaming in the dim red light as a smattering of fully clothed men looked on.
Those boots? They're vinyl. This is where the vegan part comes in.
Casa Diablo's owner is Johnny Diablo Zukle, a transplant from Torrance who has eschewed animal products for the last 28 years. Diablo (he rarely uses his Lithuanian last name) said he grew up listening to a vegetarian guru named Dr. John McDougall. At age 21, he banished all animal products from his diet.
A month later, the newly minted vegan was traveling with his mother and aunt and had a revelation while waiting in line in a Stockton bagel shop.
"I realized — and I thought out loud — 'Hey, if I don't eat animal products, I don't have to wear them either.' I could be apart from all the suffering done to animals," he recounted Thursday night as well-waxed women danced and music boomed. "My mom said, 'Oh, don't be a fanatic.' But it was too late."
Casa Diablo's dancers are prohibited from wearing leather, fur, silk or pearls while performing. Order a white Russian from Tori at the wall-length bar and she'll pour a concoction made with soy creamer. Ditto for the Irish coffees, the Creamsicle drinks, the Eros Euphoria martinis.
The "Mac & Chz" isn't, as the menu says, "just like mom used to make," unless your mom is Betty White. The chimichanga is stuffed with "taco soy strips." The pumpkin spice cupcakes — hand-crafted by a dancer named Sabrina who says she wears "quite a bit more" while baking — are topped with Tofutti Better Than Cream Cheese frosting.
On this night, in a nod to the kerfuffle over Booker and stripper Lynsie Lee, the special is a Booker Burger. The patty is Casa Diablo's usual, the goateed owner said: "soy protein, more protein than a regular burger, no saturated fat, no cholesterol, and it's delicious."
The big difference is in accouterment. "Extra mayo," Diablo said, and then said it again. "Because of the mayor." Mayo. Mayor. Get it?
The Booker Burger was set up on a small table beside a chess set, not far from where dancers strut their stuff. Fries were artfully mounded beside it, and photographers from the Oregonian, TMZ and the New York Post were shooting away.
The dancers and their clients, however, were largely unimpressed. Sure, Lee did a star turn in her skimpy patriotic bikini, white stars on a blue background with red piping. It didn't stay on long. And Diablo was pressed into explaining Portland's libertarian leanings between bites of vegan pad thai.
"The Supreme Court of Oregon ruled in favor of freedom of speech, and basically they're saying, 'Hey, listen, it's protected speech, so anyone who wants to open a strip club can,'" Diablo said. "In the end, freedom of speech wins. I hope it always does. It's what makes Oregon great."
Diablo is largely correct, but his legal analysis could go back further. As David Fidanque, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, points out, the Beaver State's Constitution is more protective of free speech than is the federal Constitution's 1st Amendment.
Article 1, Section 8 stipulates that "no law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion or restricting the right to speak, write, or print freely on any subject whatever, but every person shall be responsible for the abuse of this right."
The state's Constitution was ratified in 1857, and the free expression clause was solidified through a string of court cases in the 1980s and later. A result? The Ultimate Strip Club List (www.tuscl.net) catalogs 64 establishments within Portland city limits, or one for every 9,400 or so residents.
Dana Haynes, spokesman for Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, said he did not know whether such a ratio puts his city ahead of others — and he hoped no one had studied the matter "on my tax dollars" — but he does hear of Portland's preeminence on a regular basis.
"Judges have said you cannot zone out a strip club," Haynes said. Then he continued, delicately, "It is probably true that some cities in some states have an easier time of prohibiting strip clubs within their boundaries."
Which is why BarFly Bus Tours will embark Saturday night on Strip-O-Rama XXXV, its quarterly crawl through eight to 10 of the Rose City's finest strip joints. Owner Jen Lane, who founded the company in 1999 and began the Strip-O-Rama tours a year later, said early outings drew demonstrations.
"The first two times I did them, I had women protesters come onto the bus and leaflet the bus with fliers that said, 'Jen Lane and BarFly hate women' and 'Strip clubs degrade women,'" she recounted. "At first the tours were 100% men. Now things have changed so much … that each one of the Strip-O-Rama buses are 50% women."
And they're all sold out.
Times staff writer Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.