Happy Belly: Vegetarian-Focused Cuisine in Tacoma

Jennifer Johnson, owner of Tacoma's Happy Belly
Jennifer Johnson, owner of Tacoma’s Happy Belly

Jennifer Johnson was operations manager at Dirty Oscar’s for four years, but the heavy food didn’t align with her health-conscious lifestyle. “I wanted to make food that you could eat every day,” she said.

Then one day after hot yoga class, the proprietor of her favorite juice bar told her he couldn’t stand another gray Tacoma winter. He was leaving town. “I thought about it for five seconds,” she said. Jennifer decided to expand the juice bar, turning it into her own healthful restaurant. Happy Belly was born.

When I visited, the 18-seat café was doing a strong lunch business. It was cheerful, bright and lively, with a blue and yellow color scheme. “I wanted a place that was like a big hug,” Jennifer told me.

Happy BellyHappy Belly bills itself as “vegetarian-focused cuisine and juice bar.” This gives Jennifer the chance to make all her vegetarian favorites, but still please a wider crowd in a city not well-known for having a big veg population. Her top sellers include rotating flavors of rice bowls and curries. “Now we have to make double batches because we keep selling out,” Jennifer said of the vegan red curry they were serving on the day I visited. But they also sell lots of turkey sandwiches.

I was torn between the curry and a sesame pepper rice bowl, but opted for the curry. It came beautifully plated, the curry arranged atop spinach leaves so that it resembled a flower, and liberally studded with crunchy water chestnuts. The smoothie menu looked alluring, but I was too full of curry to try any.

If you’re in Tacoma during breakfast or dinner hours, stop by Happy Belly. It’s currently open weekdays from 7 am to 5 pm, and Saturdays from 9 to 3.

Viva: A Vegan Must-Visit in Tacoma

Viva Tacoma owners
Viva owners Rich Baker and Paco Hernandez

Although I did lots of fun things in Tacoma, visiting Viva was what originally got me on a train from Portland to visit this Washington port city. Two of the three owners — Rich Baker and Paco Hernandez — generously devoted a couple of hours to feeding me dinner and telling me the story of their vegan restaurant.

Since Viva opened in September of 2014, they’ve done a good business and gotten excellent press. The focus of this small restaurant is on vegan, organic and gluten-free dining, with about a quarter of the menu options raw. “I’m amazed how many people come in who aren’t vegan or vegetarian,” Rich told me. Some value the organic or gluten-free options, or just eating delicious food that makes them feel good. Last year Viva won both best vegetarian restaurant and best new restaurant in South Sound Magazine, which includes Seattle.

The partnership formed when Rich and his wife, Nancy Parkison, were alarmed that Tacoma’s AmeRAWcan Bistro was closing. Paco was the chef there. “I made a joke, I said ‘you guys should open up a restaurant,’” Paco remembers. But as the three thought about it, the idea turned into a serious business proposition.

Viva Tacoma interior
Viva interior

“We always wanted to do something to pay it forward to society,” Rich said. He and Nancy are devoted to healthy living, a lifestyle they’ve slowly adopted over the years to include vegan food and yoga.

Paco found a spot for Viva in Proctor, one of Tacoma’s most progressive neighborhoods. Since the space had formerly housed a deli, it required minimal build-out. They even kept the gorgeous deep red walls.

Top-selling dishes include raw enchiladas, mac and cheese, and Portobello tofu tacos. They go through 50 pounds of cauliflower a week to make their popular cauliflower wings. Here’s the secret, according to Paco, who developed all their recipes. Toss cauliflower in a little gluten-free flour with powdered garlic and coconut milk. Bake, then fry in olive oil. Top with a mixture of sesame oil, ginger, tamari, coconut nectar and roasted sesame seeds. “The sesame seeds must be roasted,” Paco emphasized.

Viva Tacoma enchiladas
Raw enchiladas

I had the raw enchiladas, which are stuffed with walnut meat and cabbage and topped with avocado and cashew sour cream. Since I’m a hot sauce addict, Paco brought me some of his homemade habanero hot sauce. Highly recommended! I didn’t really need to eat any more than that. But Rich had told me about the cashew-based ice creams he makes strawberry, chocolate and vanilla) and I couldn’t resist trying them. He’s developed a technique to freeze ice cream just enough that it doesn’t get too hard to scoop. I have experienced this phenomenon with non-dairy ice creams more time than I want to admit. I tried all three, and liked his chocolate best.

Put Viva on your list for next time you’re in Tacoma. If I lived there, I would eat at Viva all the time.

 

Therafit offers a line of vegan shoes and Certified B Corp good vibes

While all-vegan companies are my favorites, I also appreciate a company that offers a vegan line of products. Therafit vegan shoes, a Florida-based retailer, specializes in comfortable sneakers, sandals, walking shoes and boots, and offers some styles in vegan-friendly materials. Here’s the lowdown on the features of the shoes, what they offer in vegan styles, and my experiences with the Sienna shoe.

 

Features

The Deborah sneaker in hot pink

Therafit has gone to great lengths to make this shoe comfortable and supportive for the feet. They even have a patented system of three adaptors stuck in the heels of the shoes. You can control the amount of shock absorbance and support by using one, two or three at once. Gel insert comfort pads, a shock absorbing polyurethane wedge, and renewable insoles with arch and heel support are other comfort features.

B Corps

As a Certified B Corporation, Therafit has to meet high standards of environmental and social performance, transparency and accountability. Currently more than 1,400 for-profit companies in 42 countries have gone through the process – and met the criteria – to be certified. They are redefining what it means to be a successful business. For every pair of shoes sold, Therafit makes a donation to a charity partner.

Vegan Shoes

The Jasmine vegan sandal

Therafit offers about 10 different styles of vegan shoes, including sneakers, sandals and ballet flats. Even the Sandy sandal – basically a flip flop with extra support and arch support – include Therafit’s personal comfort system with the three adaptors, as mentioned above. You can get fun, bright colors like hot pink sneakers or bright yellow sandals. Or opt for more understated sandal choices, such as black, white or pewter. Current prices range from $69 to $109.

The Sienna                                                                                                   

I tried the Sienna, which is billed as a sport casual shoe. The black, red and white plaid with a side zip are very cute. The zip and the plaid add enough flair so they look dressier than sneakers, although they’re pretty much sneakers.

I’m very happy with the look of the Sienna. The arch support feels good, and they have plenty of shock absorption. But for shoes that emphasize comfort, and are even endorsed by the National Posture Institute, I expected them to be much more comfortable. It may just be the way my foot is shaped, but right where the lace goes through the bottom eyelet, the shoe seemed to dig into my bone. It took a lot of walks around the neighborhood to break in this part of the shoe. Eventually I worked up to a two-mile walk, but they definitely rub my little toes and heels more than my Nikes or my Columbia boots. The Siennas are stiffer than the Nikes, which may be why they irritate after a couple of miles. But they’re cute enough I’ll keep trying to further break them in.

Like I said, everybody has a differently shaped foot. So I’d encourage you to try them for yourself, especially if you like to support companies that offer vegan products. Just be sure to first try them inside, as you can’t return them if there are any signs of wear.

Coffeebar: An Energy Bar That’s A Lot Like Coffee

If you don’t like coffee, skip Coffebar. But if you’re a coffee fan, this might quickly become your favorite energy bar.

Unlike most bars, Coffeebar doesn’t taste like granola or nuts. It smells richly of coffee and tastes like chocolate-covered espresso beans. And like coffee, it will give you a good dose of caffeine – 100 mg per bar. Boston’s New Grounds Food, makers of Coffeebar, use only the best ingredients. Expect organic, fair trade coffee. The other ingredients are non-GMO and organic, too. These bars are also vegan and gluten-free.

Coffeebars come in three flavors: caramel macchiato, coconut mocha and mocha latte. Depending on flavor, each Coffeebar contains 180-190 calories. At 10 grams of sugar, these aren’t the lowest-sugar bars around. They also include 3-4g of dietary fiber, 3-4g of protein, and 10% of the recommended daily dose of iron. The main ingredients by weight are dates, gluten-free oats, almond butter, brown rice syrup and dark chocolate.

The young inventors of Coffeebar

Young entrepreneurs Johnny Fayad and Ali Kothari invented Coffeebar. When they were freshmen, they found that an 8 am financial accounting class cut into their coffee drinking time. So the two business majors developed a way to eat their coffee on the way to class.

They won the Audience Favorite Award in the 2013 Husky Startup Challenge at Northeastern University. In 2014, their Kickstarter campaign raised $44,000 in 44 days from 1,103 backers. People love coffee, after all.

Johnny and Ali aren’t coldhearted businessmen. Like many forward-thinking businesses of today, they have devised ways to help others. For example, by supporting a mobile library school in Nicaragua and supporting a microloan program for businesswomen in Guatemala. You know, places where all this delicious coffee is grown.

At three for $8.99, these bars aren’t cheap. You can also order a box of 12 for $36. Or, since coffee is an addiction, New Grounds Food also offers a subscription program.

Exploring the Mecca-Copia Wilderness with Big Wheel Tours

Swooping down into a desert canyon on a bicycle is one of my favorite memories from my recent trip to Palm Desert. Signing up with Big Wheel Tours makes this experience super easy.

Big Wheel Tours
This trailer is full of bikes.

Our tour started with Evan Trubee and guide Ron Chang picking us up after lunch in the Big Wheel van, which tows a trailer full of bikes. They drove us 40 minutes into the Mecca-Copia National Wilderness, for the tour they call the Earthquake Canyon Express.

Evan founded Big Wheel back in 1998. Since then, the Palm Desert-based company has expanded to include guided hikes, jeep tours and bike rentals.

Both men are excited to show visitors the desert. “So many people who come out to the desert think it’s all golf courses, tennis and hanging out at the pool,” Ron said. He’s a transplant from Hawaii, where he ran a concrete pumping business. While he could pump concrete uphill, underwater or for a 40-story building, it didn’t satisfy him like leading bike tours. “This is making people happy,” he said. Ron also leads a full moon hike, which sounds really fun.

I hadn’t been on a bike since last summer and wasn’t sure I was up for riding 20 miles. But Evan and Ron reassured me that they’d brought customers from age 6 to 87 on this tour, and so far everybody had been fine. Plus, it’s all downhill.

When we arrived at our starting point, Ron and Evan outfitted our half dozen riders with appropriate-sized bikes and helmets. The bikes have fat tires, upright handlebars and big padded seats. I quickly got accustomed to my blue steed.

Then we started down the long, gradually sloping paved road. The ride was truly easy. As promised, it was all downhill. Ron rode with us while Evan followed in the van. Instead of riding together, we went at our own pace, spreading out to find a bit of solitude and serenity even with a group. The desert is like that. It was a beautiful afternoon, warm but not at all hot. We rode through about seven miles of open desert, then dropped into the canyon where we could see the crazy rock formations pushed this way and that by the San Andreas Fault. We started at about 1600 feet, and wound up below sea level with a view of the Salton Sea. Very little peddling required. By the time we took a break and Evan offered around his homemade chocolate chip cookies, I suspected I’d only burned about two calories.

Welcome to Mecca
Welcome to Mecca
The mascot of Oasis Date Gardens
The mascot of Oasis Date Gardens

Once we’d loaded our bikes back up, we started home to our Palm Desert hotel. Evan and Ron stopped off at Oasis Date Gardens in Mecca so we could try off the specialty of the region, the date shake. It also gave us the chance to try a wide variety of date samples, most of which I’d never heard of.

This is a great tour for anybody who wants some gentle sightseeing by bike. If you want a more challenging outing, you can rent a bike from Big Wheel and explore nearby Joshua Tree.

Hiking the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument

I love quiet hikes, where you’re walking at your own speed, getting some exercise and thinking your own thoughts. But sometimes it’s nice to have a guide. Especially one as pleasant and experienced as Ada Nuckels, lead volunteer at Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. After a career in medical offices, Ada decided it was time to go outside. She retired and has been volunteering at the monument in Palm Desert for six years.

Even though the bloom is purple, Cahuilla Indians made yellow-orange dye from the indigo plant.
Even though the bloom is purple, Cahuilla Indians made yellow-orange dye from the indigo plant.

The monument has three easy hikes – a one-mile, two-mile and three-mile loop. Across the street from the monument, hikers can choose a more rugged hike on the 12.2-mile Art Smith Trail.

San Jacinto Mountains Monument
Ada Nuckels, lead volunteer and hiking guide extraordinaire

We meandered the two-mile loop, with frequent stops so Ada could tell us about desert plants. It was early February, a month before the annual Coachella Valley Wildflower Festival, and Ada hoped the flowers would show by March fifth. A few years of drought have left the plants short on rock daisies, indigo, chuparosa, lavender, creosote and other desert blossoms.

But that didn’t stop Ada from showing us what the flowers looked like. She brought her very well-worn wildflower book, and would hold it open beside cacti, a sort of before and after picture.

Occasionally people see desert tortoises in the area, and peninsula bighorn sheep. We glimpsed a couple of small lizards.

teddy bear cholla
Looks soft, but teddy bear cholla is awfully sharp

My favorite desert plant was the teddy bear cholla. Its fluffy arms look almost huggable. But don’t do it – you’ll come away with a chest full of barbed thorns. People often call it jumping cholla. Ada explained that if you get near it at a certain resonance – such as a bunch of runners thumping the ground – an arm can break off and before you know it, it’s got you.

We also encountered the odd cheese plant. For 10 months out of year, it looks like a pile of twigs. But during the two months it’s green, it smells like limburger cheese. We were there for that two-month window. Indeed, it was a cheesy smelling plant.

As long as you can handle some uneven ground, this is a good hike for almost anybody. Not too demanding and lots to see. From October through April, Ada and other volunteers lead three hikes per week. And you can even bring your teenagers – Ada pointed out a strange rock that’s really a cell phone tower, ensuring coverage on your hike.

Just in case you were wondering, this handy chart is in the restroom.
Just in case you were wondering, this handy chart is in the restroom.

 

5 Things I Like about the JW Marriott Desert Springs in Palm Desert, California

Unless there are cute little windmills to hit your ball through, I’m not much for golf. So what did I find to like about a golf resort in upscale Palm Desert, California? Plenty.

JW Marriott Desert SpringsThere are boats in the lobby. Sure, it’s a short walk to the bar. But wouldn’t you rather go on a mini-cruise?

gym at JW Marriott Desert Springs
No reason not to work out during your Palm Desert visit.

Full-sized Gym.

We’re not talking about a few cardio machines that look, sound and feel like they were ordered from a late-night infomercial. Really, I’ve met perfectly respectable hotels that are hiding seriously sordid gyms. But not the JW Marriott Desert Springs. Tons of cardio machines, free weights, weight machines and small equipment like med balls. They even had a few machines I hadn’t seen. And they offer one class every day, including power walking and yoga. This is a real home away from home for the dedicated gym-goer.

Spa Bistro at JW Marriott Desert Springs
Grilled naan with three dips
Spa Bistro JW Marriott Desert Springs
Fresh greens in the desert! Probably local, as the area grows winter lettuce.
granola at JW Marriott Desert Springs
Excellent house-made granola

 

 

 

Spa Bistro

The JW Marriott Desert Springs isn’t out to starve vegans. I ate at both the Rockwood Grill and the Spa Bistro. Delicious items I consumed include a large salad with spectacular greens, grilled naan with three different dips (white bean, red pepper hummus and grilled eggplant), house-made granola, and a date shake made with almond milk instead of dairy.

Spa

Hmm, do I want to go in the steam room infused with lavender and eucalyptus, or is it a eucalyptus-only day? The Marriott’s spa gives you a choice. There’s also a Jacuzzi, sauna, private spa pool, lounging areas and lots of spa services. Ask for Cindy for a very pleasant Swedish massage. She’s worked at the Marriott 28 years, loves her job, and loves the desert. I asked her if she’s here for life. “Where else would I go?” she said.

JW Desert Springs flamingoes
Immigrants from Chile

Flamingos

Is that a pink mirage? No, it’s a flock of flamingos. I know, it’s not really natural, flamingos living in the desert. But they seem happy, as far as I can tell. Word is, they’re breeding, which flamingos don’t always do in captivity. The Marriott employs a bird whisperer, Linda Whittington, who cares for the flamingos, the rescued macaws who live in the lobby, and even the odd hawk injured on the golf course.

Award-Winning Vegetarian Food at Boise’s Shangri-La Tea Room

Shangri-La tearoom
Ganesh and some yantras add color to the tea room.

What’s beige on the outside and all kinds of colorful inside?

It would be easy to drive right by the bland façade of Boise’s Shangri-La Tea Room, but vegetarians should do themselves a favor and make a U-turn into the lot. You’ll find a huge selection of teas prepared by an herbalist, vegan and raw options, and a gift shop area where you can buy black cumin oil and other possibly hard-to-find items in Idaho.

Don't be fooled by the beige facade.
Don’t be fooled by the beige facade.

Last year, the Shangri-La won the “best local vegetarian food” title from the Boise Weekly. It also bagged the title every year from 2009 to 2012. So we decided it was worth setting the GPS for a little detour on our way north to Stanley.

Curry wrap
Curry wrap

Shangri_la Boise Med pizzaI almost got a DLT – dulse, lettuce and tomato – sandwich. Dulse is a new superfood seaweed that supposedly tastes like bacon. But since we were headed for the wilds of the Sawtooth Mountains, I decided to play it safe and get a curry wrap. Quite delicious, with big chunks of tofu and well-cooked potatoes. My partner tried the Mediterranean pizza – which he said was good, but wasn’t very big – and we shared the Asian salad, which is made of raw cabbage, sesame seeds, carrots, peppers, green onions, sesame oil and other good stuff.

Asian salad
Asian salad

Snow hiking in Stanley, Idaho

The population of Stanley, Idaho hovers around 68, and I don’t think they’re all there in the wintertime. My partner, dog and I had the place practically to ourselves during a winter vacation. We were the only ones staying at Jerry’s Cabins in Lower Stanley. We were the only ones walking on the freshly groomed trails at Park Creek, and the only ones lounging in Sunbeam Hot Springs. If you like quiet, don’t like crowds, and don’t mind temperatures that dip on the south side of zero, you’ll be mighty happy in Stanley during winter.

Jerry's cabins Stanley Idaho
It was warmer inside our cabin.

Unlike nearby Sun Valley, Stanley lacks downhill skiing. Which sucks if you’re a skier, but is perfect if you’re a snowshoer, snow hiker or cross-country skier. I planned to try out my new snowshoes, but found the empty trails perfectly groomed. Boots were sufficient.

Park Creek
A snow-loving dog on the Park Creek trails

Also, if you have a fluffy dog who pants through Portland’s winters, do him or her a favor and take them on an ice vacay. Rudy had a fabulous time.

Stanley Idaho elk
Way more elk than people in winter

Stanley is blessed with all kinds of beauty: sunsets over the Sawtooth Mountains, elk wintering beside hot springs, the Salmon River, the stars at night in a dark, dark sky. I hear it’s much more popular in summer. I’m glad I bundled up and braved the winter.

Sunbeam Hot Springs in Stanley Idaho
Sunbeam Hot Springs — Better strip fast and get in before you freeze!

Off-Season Veg Dining in Joseph, Oregon: Red Horse Coffee Traders

We hardly found a table for lunch at the Red Horse Coffee Traders, even in the icy grip of January when we were the only tourists in town. This place is popular with local ranchers and townspeople for breakfast and lunch. They pride themselves on using as many organic, local and non-GMO ingredients as possible.

Red Horse Joseph
Veggie corn cake from Red Horse

Inside the cute golden-brown cottage on Main Street, the staff serves up fine coffee and makes pastries from scratch. Since I am mostly vegan, I skipped the muffins, although they looked really good. (My commitment to veganism fumbled at Arrowhead Chocolates down the street, however. Don’t miss it!!) Instead, I had the quinoa bowl – which is black beans, mixed greens, tomatoes, beets, carrots, hummus quinoa and salsa – hold the sour cream, cheese and pesto. My partner had the veggie corn cake, which has cheese, carrots, green onions and black beans cooked right in. It’s awesome to be in a smaller town and see delicious, interesting veg choices on the menu. They also offer a veggie burrito and house-made granola.

Red Horse Coffee Traders Joseph
Quinoa bowl, minus the dairy

Red Horse roasts their coffee beans onsite. We brought a half pound of their Italian roast home with us, and that’s been a hit, too.