If walls could talk, imagine the stories the former Wendy’s along SE McLoughlin Blvd could tell. After spending the '80s as a fast food joint, then as a longstanding Fantasy Adult Video location, it seemed like Johnny Diablo Žūklė's venture of a "sequel" to his NW Portland vegan strip club Casa Diablo was the perfect business to spend another hot decade along Oregon's 99E—especially due to the heated competition with next door carnivores Acropolis Steakhouse.
However, during COVID-19 pandemic shut downs, Žūklė circled his wagons around the original Casa Diablo and reimagined its sister location as a niche esports bar for vegan gamers.
"I was just thinking, do I want to just do another strip club?" Žūklė told the Mercury. "I’ve already got the number one strip club in the world. It’s so hard to have an also-ran next to a cream of the crop.’”
When SportsBox opened its doors on March 30, 2022, it started as Žūklė initially imagined it—a vegan Hooters with wall-mounted TVs, gaming stations, and sexy servers. But soon it was obvious that people weren't really coming in for the servers. They were there for the food.
Although you'll still see some hotties on staff, Žūklė has pivoted and pushed the sports bar's menu as the new draw. It was the right move.
SportsBox's Chickn' & Waffles are an (all day) breakfast menu mainstay. While the waffle had about the same zest as frozen food aisle fare—despite available dollops of syrup, butter, and hot sauce—the drumstick struck the proper balance of soy, salt, and spice. It didn't taste remotely like meat, but that's not necessarily the point of vegan food. Its true purpose is to be delicious, and in this it succeeded.
Continuing with a brunch for dinner theme, we tried on and liked the estranged stepchild of a mojito and a margarita that is SportsBox's Dojarita. Its sweet, citrusy, vaguely-minty taste bud caress—of, among other things, tequila, white rum, lime, and sugar—proved heavenly.
We were less impressed with the Absolut strawberry lemonade, which buried any hint of strawberry goodness beneath a mountain of ice and the vodka, but to some that will sound *chef kiss.*
In many ways, SportsBox still sounds like Casa Diablo II. "Till the World Ends" by Britney Spears and Chingy's "Right Thurr" fill the air amid the chatter of its now all ages audience.
Gone is the stripper pole that once graced the center of the room. In its place: space for ping pong and water pong—the drinking game you love, but in a post-COVID world nobody wants to share cups and water allows minors to play. Private lap dance booths have been replaced with a 70-inch plasma screen TV, Xbox, Playstation, and Nintendo Switch setups, and a robust games library, including the likes of Fortnite and Apex Legends.
Living up to its namesake, SportsBox has ample seating to take in an Ultimate Fighting match on its big screens, but hands-on games take centerstage. A pool table and a stack of Jenga blocks are in play alongside video games like Age of Empires and Civilization VI. Žūklė, 59, is a lifelong gamer and considers those titles among his top picks.
Žūklė says that the demise of Casa Diablo II and rise of SportsBox taught him that Portland’s strip club scene has grown more fickle. And to him, it’s a sign strip club owners ought to hedge their bets.
“If I knew then what I know now, I would probably never have opened up a strip club because I've seen them come and go,” Žūklė said. “Business has been pretty tough. The tourist business just isn't like it used to be.”
Still, Žūklė is an optimist. He already has another project in the pipeline, with his eyes set on Portland's downtown. It’s guaranteed to be similarly animal-product-free. “I’ve been a vegan since 1985," Žūklė said. "Everything I ever do will always be vegan."
SportsBox Vegan Grill & Game Lounge, 8445 SE McLoughlin, www.sportsbox.bar