"I think 'raw' is an awful word," Ani Phyo says. "It's 'war' spelled backwards. It makes you think of a raw oyster bar, or raw meat, or 'I've fallen and slipped and rubbed my elbow raw.'"

Phyo's the co-owner of SmartMonkey Foods, Portland's only raw-foods catering company. "Living foods" is the term Phyo prefers, because she thinks chowing down on uncooked grub will improve our lives. But for the Bite Club, who stopped caring about our health in 1998, we just wanna know how raw foods taste. After all, we'd probably eat a live puppy if it were dipped in chocolate.

The movement's main tenet is simple: Cooked foods are bad for you. Heating foods to temperatures over 118 degrees Fahrenheit kills off essential enzymes and therefore does a body no good.

Ever since Dr. Atkins convinced half of Portland that bread and pasta are really the devil (sugar) in disguise, the once-cultish, dressed-down love for fruit and veggies has begun to look like a chic health alternative. Phyo and her SmartMonkey partner Ede Schweizer teach raw-foods classes at the Adidas fitness center at the athletic behemoth's North Portland campus. One of the guest speakers at tonight's installment of SmartMonkey's weekly Wednesday dinners at Three Friends Coffee House is Tonya Kay, a dancer in the off-Broadway hit STOMP, who insists raw foods are the ultimate energy boost.

Still, to the Bite Club's smug mind, that doesn't make the idea of eating vegetable pulp "bread" and fruit mash any more palatable. To be honest, when we ended up at Three Friends a few weeks ago, we weren't expecting much. The stuffy coffee shop was clogged with diners balancing plates of nut loaf on their knees, as well as a few dreadlocked hippies chugging strawberry nut milk in front of Phyo and Schweizer's prep area.

Yet after just one bite of the pair's grub, we felt a sinking sensation in our stomach. This stuff tasted good.

The taste of a clever "nutz loaf"--prepared by mixing sprouted nuts and seeds, veggies, and spices and then dehydrating the whole lump--reminded us of a rugged, spicy falafel, and it was topped with a ballsy tomato sauce. A blazing-orange ginger-carrot bisque was cool, savory and smooth, like drinking liquid sunshine.

Not that the spendy dinner, $32 for a full meal, was perfect. A wedge of carob cake with fudge frosting tasted like squishy, plummy muck. Maybe trying to unbake a cake just doesn't work.

Luckily, these mad-food scientists have come up with many winning recipes by concentrating on texture, spice and presentation. Raw pizza, anyone?

Phyo, who uses her own home stove as a storage cupboard for place mats, likens eating raw to personal hygiene. "Fruits, vegetables, and sprouted nuts and seeds contain fiber and water," she says. "The fiber is a broom for your system, and the water hoses down your insides."

Now there's a pretty mental picture.

Phyo herself, a 36-year-old Energizer Bunny with perfect, creamy Oil of Olay-commercial skin, is a convincing argument for raw power. She and Schweizer, both ex-graphic designers, apprenticed with the raw movement's poster boy/chef Juliano in Los Angeles in 2000. "Eating raw totally gives me mental clarity and makes me more productive," she says. "You are fueling your brain."

Screw health and politics, the Bite Club says. Many uncooked dishes are the ultimate summer food: light, cool and vibrantly spiced. And we're not alone in this assessment. Celebrity chefs Charlie Trotter and Roxanne Klein's Raw was big cookbook news last year, and down south in San Francisco, five raw restaurants have opened in the past year.

In Portland, Phyo and Schweizer are using the Three Friends dinners as market research. They've considered launching a raw restaurant in the empty space next door that once housed William's on 12th.

We're not convinced that raw foods are the answer to Bite Club's metaphysical, spiritual and physical well-being--our body didn't emit a golden aura after the uncooked dinner or anything like that. But we figure we might as well eat another carrot stick in the meantime.

Just in case.

SmartMonkey Foods
gourmet dinner

at Three Friends Coffeehouse, 201 SE 12th Ave., 236-7878. 7 pm Wednesday, Aug. 18. $$. Call for reservations.

When tennis pros Andre Agassi and Anna Kournikova hit town last November, they requested SmartMonkey treats to keep their serve up.

Last September, WW wrote a cover story about the zealots who convened in Oregon for the 2003 International Festival of Raw and Living Foods. The raw foodists are back in town this weekend. Find out more at www.living-foods.com