Here’s a news flash: Phoenix is big, sprawling and crisscrossed with freeways. It’s suburbia taken to its illogical conclusion in the water-parched “Valley” as the locals call it. Hope you like heat. The temperature climbed to over 90 F. when I was there in mid-April; at higher elevations not that far away, it dipped below freezing at night.
A friend said I would hate Phoenix: the heat, the crowds, the cookie-cutter retirement communities. I didn’t have strong feelings either way. It was mostly a navigation problem to solve, where a GPS device certainly helped. I was there over a weekend, so the traffic was surprisingly light, and a couple I stayed with through airbnb gave me a Monday morning route that avoided the choked freeways.
There are some good things about the Phoenix area for the road-trip diner. Because it’s so car-centeric and sprawling, it’s often pretty easy to find free parking at or close to your destination. The warm climate means it’s also a great place to have an evening meal or drink outdoors. And in a city this big, there are lots of good, independent places to eat or drink, often at reasonable prices. I managed to gorge at over 10 great eateries and drinkeries in less than two days… without requiring bypass surgery.
As to why you’d be going to, or passing through, Phoenix, there’s spring baseball, a surprising amount of hiking and climbing in the surrounding hills and, of course, golf all winter long. Thousands of Canadian snowbirds can’t all be wrong.
I’ve pretty much avoided the DDD curse on my road-food journeys. The airing of a Guy Fieri Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program on the Food Network can reportedly double the number of customers thronging to many featured restaurants. The infrequent occasions when I’ve hit a DDD spot, I’ve gone early or late in the meal cycle to avoid the lines. But I arrive at *Joe’s Farm Grill in upscale Gilbert, outside of Phoenix, on a glorious spring Saturday at 5 pm. Outside, the line extends to the curb. Inside, customers are inching along through those winding queue dividers you see in airports. The waiting gives me time to study the menu and the history of the Johnston family farm, which still grows lettuce and tomatoes used in the meals and tends olive, date and fruit trees.
The line does move smartly, thanks to a well-oiled crew of at least eight that churns out burgers, chicken sandwiches and smoked pork. In no time, a little pager buzzes and my Fontina burger is ready, loaded with roasted red peppers, mushrooms, pecan pesto and melted cheese. By the time I’ve put the lettuce and tomato on top, it takes a minute to get through the greenery and into the moist, perfectly cooked patty, wonderfully complemented by an order of rosemary-dill panko crumb onion rings. The clincher is sitting on the patio, looking out at the farm, alongside young families at picnic tables. Joe’s efficiently serves fine food, in a wonderful setting. Just try to get there before everyone else does.
Joe’s Farm Grill
3000 East Ray Road, Gilbert
Daily breakfast 8 am-11 am, lunch and dinner 11 am-9 pm
Want to check out the bar scene in the Phoenix area? Head over to SanTan Brewing Co. in Chandler, southeast of the big city. On a sultry Saturday evening, the taps are flowing, the music is pounding and the patrons are yelling to be heard. If it’s too noisy and hot inside, head to the outdoor patio (it’s one of the benefits of living in Phoenix), where there’s a long row of counter stools behind the busy bartenders. Mix the suds with something substantial, like a big plate of nachos or a massive sandwich.
8 South San Marcos Place, Chandler
Monday to Thursday 11 am-1 am, Friday-Saturday 11 am-2 am, Sunday 10 am-1 am
I walk into a dimly lit bar, where about eight guys are hunched over a wooden counter. It’s 7:30, on a Sunday morning in aptly named Dick’s Hideaway (there’s no sign above the door, only a menu in the window). The patrons are nursing Bloody Marys, beers, glasses of red and maybe hangovers. But they’re mostly here to inhale honking big breakfasts, served on hot pewter plates. There is another room, with a couple of cool, copper common tables. But really, you want to be rubbing shoulders on a bar stool, watching a short-order pro whip up everything from French toast to eggs Benedict with two chunks of tenderloin steak. It’s not cheap. My jalapeno Eggs Benedict runs $15 but features thick pieces of Nuesle’s pork loin and comes, as most of the plates do, with big scoops of good potatoes and beans. It’s a massive amount of first-class food (the couple behind me wisely shares a plate) in a unique environment worth checking out, if you can snag a seat.
6008 North 16 Street, Phoenix
Brunch and lunch daily 7 am-4 pm, dinner 4 pm
I’m not sure if everywhere in Phoenix is like this, but there’s a healthy line at *Lux Central at 8 on a Sunday morning. But they’ve nailed the efficiency thing, taking my Americano order while I’m standing in line. It’s ready, with a little nametag on a saucer, by the time I reach the till. En route, I pass tempting scones and mixed-berry corn muffins, but the most spectacular dish is a puffy, fruit-laden Dutch pancake (only $6) that’s made to order. Lux is a cool place to people watch from a retro couch or a table lined with old-fashioned typewriters.
4400 North Central Avenue (near downtown Phoenix)
Sunday to Thursday 6 am-midnight, Friday-Saturday 6 am-2 am
I seem to have hit a Phoenix daily double: a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives-featured place with no crowds. Indeed on a late Sunday morning, Los Taquitos Mexican Grill, a cheery but unassuming place in a Phoenix strip mall, is mostly vacant. It’s certainly not like this on Taco Tuesdays, when folks are lining up for $1 meat tacos. But the asada, pastor and pollo tacos are still a bargain at the regular a la carte price of $1.49, as is my excellent fish version ($1.99), featuring tender chunks of flesh topped by onions, cilantro and salsa in a double-tortilla envelope. What seals the deal is the server handing me a squeeze bottle of tomatillo-jalapeno sauce so fresh it’s still warm. I have room for a nice ceviche tostada—a crisp tortilla covered in shrimp marinated in lime juice and mixed with pico de gallo.
Los Taquitos Mexican Grill
7000 North 16 Street, Phoenix (also 4747 East Elliot Road)
Monday to Saturday 9 am-9 pm, Sunday 9 am-8 pm
Hankering for a torta the size of a tortoise? Look no further than Los Reyes de la Torta, where the Latino locals head en masse for a fix of the big Mexican sandwiches, along with oversized quesadillas and sopes (layered masa disks). If you can’t decide which of 20 tortas to order, go with the monster Del Rey ($9.50): The meats alone include ham, pork sirloin, breaded beef, chorizo and hot dogs, along with some veggies for balance. My Mexican torta ($8) is a more restrained meal-and-a-half, featuring grilled steak and onions, refried beans and avocado. While manfully tackling this, I watch families converse in Spanish, tuck into their meals with gusto and sip from big goblets of agua frescas festooned with little umbrellas.
Los Reyes de la Torta
9230 North 7 Street, Phoenix (also another Phoenix and a Tempe location)
Monday to Thursday 10 am-9 pm, Friday 10 am-10 pm, weekends 9 am-10 pm
How can a penny-pinching road tripper occasionally enjoy higher-end fare without blowing the budget? Why, by taking advantage of happy hours, which many fancier places offer to lure early-bird customers. Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar is no exception, knocking a dollar or two off many drinks and a number of menu items from 3-6 pm an unusual seven days a week. After getting, say, a discount margarita or Pinot gris, be sure to order a big bowl of excellent, chunky guacamole. The accompanying first-class, salty chips start out as house-made tortillas turned into tortilla chips. I would have been happy just filling up on this $5 treat. The grilled, wild shrimp tacos are also superior, emboldened by the hot sauce that’s, you guessed it, made in house. I should have stopped there, only $11 poorer for a pint and a couple of fine appies. But I then add a cortada salad, not noticing in the menu description the words “corn chips” and “crunchy” dried peas, which threaten my molars. Gallo Blanco is part of the charming, boutique Clarendon Hotel, which features a cool pool, framed on one end by a wall of water.
Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar
401 West Clarendon Avenue, Phoenix
Sunday to Thursday 7:30 am-10 pm, Friday-Saturday 7:30 am-11 pm
As I mentioned in an earlier post, *D’Lish Drive-Thru (“Healthy on the go”) is a fantastic place for breakfast. It’s well worth going inside to watch the friendliest, liveliest crew of guys in action. While I’m eating an excellent breakfast AZ Burro—featuring smoked turkey, avocado, egg whites and a hash patty—Josh comes over with a complementary cup of Breakfast Buzz: an invigorating iced mix of protein powder, espresso, peanut butter, banana and chocolate. Sounds strange, but it’s delicious. Why don’t more cafes concoct creative drinks like this? Another innovative breakfast item is an organic quinoa porridge with vanilla macaroon granola, fruit and steamed milk. Apparently, it’s popular with Arizona Cardinal football players, who double up with a burro or maybe a California Club on toasted artisan bread.
D’lish Drive Thru
2613 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale (also a Tempe location)
Weekdays 6 am-4 pm, weekends 7 am-4 pm
The folks at D’Lish tell me to get a Philly cheesesteak sandwich at nearby DeFalco’s Italian Deli. “It’s the best in The Valley,” one server says. But it’s an Italian deli, and I’m feeling like meatballs, which are house made, as is the tomato sauce. Squeezed inside a soft roll, the meatballs are indeed large, fall-apart tender and nicely seasoned. A guy at the next table takes delivery of an overflowing Philly cheesesteak. Mmmm. I’m sure either choice would be the right one.
DeFalco’s Italian Deli
2334 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
Monday to Saturday 10 am-9 pm, Sunday 11 am-9 pm
The hostess at *The Parlor Pizzeria guides me to her favourite seats, at the counter overlooking the wood-fired oven, naturally. The hair-cutting chairs are reminders of the previous tenant, a beauty salon. “Can I get a cut while I’m waiting?” I ask. “If we’ve got time,” she quips. After some five minutes in a 460 F. oven, my eight-inch Forager pizza ($10 for a generous six slices) emerges with a lovely, bubbly char on the thin crust. The topping is a compelling, rich mix of wild boar meatball, rabbit sausage and finocchiona (boy, these Italian salamis play havoc with spell check). Add some radicchio, thinly sliced fennel and rosemary and I’ve got a first-rate pie, chased with a little French press pot of java. As for the trim, I need an inch taken off… my belly.
The Parlor Pizzeria
1916 East Camelback Road, Phoenix
Monday to Thursday 11 am-10 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-11 pm. Closed Sunday
When you get right down to it, the bedrock of Mexican cuisine is the lowly tortilla. It’s used to wrap burritos, embrace enchiladas and precariously hold together tacos. When deep fried, it becomes tortilla chips and the base for sopes, tostadas and flautas. But wanting to taste a tortilla unsullied by other flavours, I head to a Phoenix institution, Carolina’s Mexican Food, where they steadily churn out fresh tortillas. I order a single tortilla, with only a pool of melted butter added. It comes out warm, incredibly fresh, chewy… and large enough to wrap me as a shroud. All this for $1.25. The next time, I’ll try something fancier like a chimichanga. But this is about celebrating the tortilla in all its naked glory.
Carolina’s Mexican Food
1202 East Mohave Street (and one other Phoenix location)
Weekdays 7 am-7:30 pm, Saturday 7 am-6 pm. Closed Sunday