What’s the deal with Phoenix?
I don’t mean to sound like Jerry Seinfeld, but I flew into the capital city of Arizona without a single preconceived notion of its reputation. Let’s see…it’s in the desert…people have a lot of bachelor and bachelorette parties there and in Scottsdale…it’s super hot (see: desert). I guess I’m also familiar with the overly-cited metaphor of the phoenix, the bird that is reborn from the ashes of its past form.
So its topography, its popularity with drunken wedding parties, and a mythological bird. Not a strong start. Sometimes, however, an uninformed perspective lends itself to a more open mind as one touches down in a new city. Not only was I arriving in Phoenix for the first time, but I was doing so alone, no friends or enemies in sight. My only guides were my instincts and our previous work on American-Eats. The rest would fall into place.
I landed in Phoenix a little after 9:00 AM local time (side note: hands in the air, I had no clue whether it was in Mountain or Pacific time and just spent my weekend oscillating between the two, which made business opens that much more confusing (it’s Mountain by the way)). I walked out of the airport and was immediately greeted by 90-degree heat. I knew I was in the desert but clearly underestimated what a hot, arid climate actually feels like. Simple walks across the street began to feel like daunting odysseys for which I needed to actively prepare my body and soul.
I asked my Lyft driver for some of her favorite local food spots and she threw out “Mexican and Italian” before raving about the food scene in Las Vegas for the rest of our ten-minute ride. This was not super helpful, but at least now I know where to get some Thai on the Strip.
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There are certain ethnic cuisines where the less assuming the restaurant appears, the better. Mexican fits securely in that camp, and El Norteño checks all the boxes, with graffiti art on the exterior and a cash-only policy. It feels like a neighborhood staple without losing its hole-in-the-wall vibe.
I set a goal that I’d try as many tamales and breakfast burritos as I could, so where better to start? I asked the cashier her favorites and she recommended the red tamale and the chorizo and egg burrito. The tamale came in the husk, which we know can throw novices off, including U.S. Presidents.
The tamale itself had a lovely punch of corn flavor on the outside and the filling was delightfully spicy and meaty.
As for the breakfast burrito, chorizo is admittedly a bit of a cheat code (it’s just always so good) but if it ain’t broke, don’t fit it. The chorizo brought a little heat without overpowering the egg. The burrito itself was quite dense, but never overwhelming.
After this mighty start, I called a ride and dropped my bags off at my Airbnb in the Evans Churchill area, located right in the heart of Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix, then ventured out to my next meal at Stoop Kid.
I’ll reiterate one last time how hot it was (note: this will not be the last time). I had always thought the dry desert heat was hot in the sunlight but much cooler in the shade; this was not the case. Fortunately, it’s extremely common for restaurants in downtown Phoenix to have mounted sprinklers overlooking the nearby sidewalks, so every block or two I was greeted by a refreshing cool mist. Eventually I came upon the Churchill food hall/hangout spot and found my way to Stoop Kid.
The name of Stoop Kid immediately jumped out to me, reminding me of that iconic episode of Hey Arnold (“Stoop Kid’s afraid to leave his stoop!”). I was then struck by the unique branding and overall aesthetic of the place: the sign looks like a NYC subway stop, there was a captivating mural of a large white creature (a ghost? Stay Puft Marshmallow Man?) slurping on a gooey cheeseburger, and the restaurant’s name itself looked graffitied on. It felt like I’d stepped right into the NYC streets of Hey Arnold, down to the pin of Arnold himself hanging behind the register.
The restaurant stand serves breakfast and lunch burgers, but I opted for what the cashier said is the most “authentic” order: the Stoop Burger with housemade chips.
This drool-worthy burger has two beef patties, Tillamook cheddar, caramelized onion, dill pickles, and dijonaise on a brioche bun. Every burger should be legally required to include caramelized onion because it adds such a rich complexity with a balance of salty, sweet, and umami. The dijonnaise brings a lovely mix of the creaminess of mayo and the light tanginess of dijon. The housemade chips were nice and crunchy with a sharp seasoned salt on them. Midway through my meal I popped the top bun off, thus turning the Stoop Burger into a low-carb power meal.
Around this point I started feeling a creeping sense of self loathing about being THAT guy sitting alone at a restaurant taking pictures and videos of my food. But I quickly reminded myself that in the grand scheme of things, nobody cares! The only thing that would make my weekend sad is if I carried myself in a sad way. So from that point, I embraced the solitude; it wasn’t pathetic to be alone at these bars and restaurants…it was cool. I was an independent man about town ready to conquer Phoenix.
I had some time to kill before my next meal (my stomach was already jam-packed with a breakfast burrito, a tamale, and a double cheeseburger with potato chips) so I headed to check out the happy hour at The Arrogant Butcher
The Arrogant Butcher
I rode a scooter toward the ASU campus, right in the thick of downtown Phoenix, or DTPHX. The scooter made my journey in the 98-degree heat (I told you I’d bring it up again) that much more bearable and my arrival into the cool restaurant was a godsend.
The Arrogant Butcher has a happy hour every weekday from 2:00 – 5:00 PM, and who doesn’t love happy hour? All bets are off when you’re at a restaurant and find out that for the next eight minutes you can get a $3 pint of beer or half off a shortlist of appetizers. I quickly tapped into the ancient art of sitting alone at a bar like a deadbeat 1980s dad, sipping on my “Warrior” IPA by Greenwood Brewing. There’s something oddly soothing about this activity, but it can get old quickly. Did people in the past used to bring books? Newspapers? Was there always a ball game on? All I’m seeing are groups on lunch dates and networking events, plus the same 5 NFL talking points (“Do you believe in Carson Wentz?”) on each TV.
I realized while sitting here that the two rooftop bars I wanted to check out didn’t open until 5:00 PM rather than 4:00 PM (I’m going to go ahead and blame time zones once again for this). So I spent the next hour just wandering DTPHX. It’s quite pleasant, with plenty to see and do but moving at a slower pace than a NYC or LA (or even my hometown of Atlanta). Eventually it was nearing 5:00 PM…time to scale the skies. Or at least the 24th floor of the Hyatt.
Compass Arizona Grill Rooftop Restaurant
This spot is so named because it’s circular and slowly spinning, eventually giving you a glimpse at every angle of the city. It’s enclosed but the windows give you a panoramic view, so you feel completely engrossed in the views. The elevator has glass walls, so the ascent is jarring as you see and feel yourself soaring upward at concerningly high speeds.
Once I arrived, I got the featured cocktail of the day: a mango margarita with a Tajin rim. The drink had a nice fruity flavor without being too sugary, and the Tajin elevated things as only Tajin can do with its tart and spicy kick.
Shortly afterwards, I walked right across the street to the next rooftop bar, equally impressive even though it was eleven stories lower.
Floor 13 Rooftop Restaurant
This spot is on the 13th floor (are you following?) of the Hilton Garden Inn. It’s a thoughtfully laid out open-air patio to immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of Phoenix. I ordered the Blackmail drink: Kentucky bourbon, blackberry, pomegranate, lime, bitters, and flamed cinnamon. The drink was a bit more sour (and hot pink) than I was hoping for, but it was still a pleasant drink with an even more pleasant view.
At this point, I was starting to get hungry again, so I began walking back down Monroe Street (side note: DTPHX has a bunch of streets named after presidents. The most bustling is Roosevelt, named for Teddy, but there’s streets named for an apparently random assortment of presidents, including my man Millard Fillmore! Congrats, Millard, you’ve earned E Fillmore St) to grab a bite closer to my Airbnb. After maybe or maybe not stopping by a nearby dispensary, I found myself drawn to Hot Daisy Pizza, a classic slice joint with anything but classic pizza toppings.
Hot Daisy Pizza
Nothing beats a pizza place where you can grab a slice or two and be on your way. At Hot Daisy Pizza, though, you can go far beyond a simple slice of pepperoni. You can make any pizza a Fire Fighter Style Chunky, adding Calabrian chili, pickled jalapenos, chipotle, and pepperoncinis to the base, which takes that pie to the next level. I also had to try the Corny Baby-Elote, with roasted corn, mozzarella, cotija cheese, chipotle oil, and fresh cilantro on top. It’s one of the most unusually delicious pizzas I’ve ever had. I was also very easily upsold on hot honey and jalapeño ranch to accompany each slice.
I took this pizza back to enjoy sitting on the couch and recovering from a long day of travel, walking, eating, and drinking. But to quote Kobe Bryant in the midst of the 2009 NBA Finals, the job’s not finished.
I slept in late, feeling rejuvenated in my beautiful suite, ready to conquer my day.
Corrections: I woke up before 5:00 AM due to the broken air conditioning in Airbnb, feeling sweaty, muggy, and exhausted.
I decided to forego trying to adjust to whatever my new time zone was (again, Mountain) and just stay on my East Coast internal clock. So by 6:30 AM I started walking to get a breakfast burrito at The Original Carolina’s.
And then things took a wet turn.
While strolling down the sidewalk, there was a leaky sprinkler which had water running across the lawn and into the street. Then, as if I was the downtrodden protagonist of a cheesy rom com, a car zoomed over the puddle, soaking me in the process. Shaken but not deterred, I turned around, walked back, changed, and then called a Lyft. In a sense, I rose like the metaphorical phoenix from the ashes of my wet clothes.
The Original Carolina’s
As soon as you pull up, you can tell this place is authentic. There’s no interior art, no music playing, a few measly fans working overtime, and a couple of tables (Carolina’s appears to be mainly a carry-out business).
I got the chorizo and egg burrito with potatoes and beans and a red tamale. The burrito was a little on the plain side, though the famous tortillas stole the show. I think the beans and potatoes are each too mild to match the flavor of the chorizo.
The tamale had some of the most flavorful masa that it didn’t even need a filling (though I sure am glad it did). It came with a sauce that tasted (bear with me here) like a spicy version of the pizza sauce that used to come with Lunchables pizzas.
After making my way (back) downtown, I had to tap into my homer interest and find a spot to watch the UGA game. I found the charming Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails, which was still opening up for brunch without their bartender on duty, so they had no qualms whatsoever with me sitting and drinking water by myself while watching ESPN. They usually have a rooftop but it was being renovated, so I left at halftime of the game to grab my next burger.
Angel’s Trumpet Ale House
This gastropub has a wide array of beers and seltzers on tap, plus plenty of enticing food options. But I had burger tunnel vision, so after sipping on a Scrimshaw PIlsner from North Coast, CA I got the Brewlee Burger.
This burger has (deep breath) a fried egg, peppered bacon, pepper jack, fresh leafy greens, pickled red onion, and sriracha mayo on a bun that’s been caramelized with sugar. The meat might honestly be the star of the show, which is high praise and exceedingly rare in a burger climate that puts so much focus on the toppings and condiments. The caramelized bun makes it sweet with a delicate crunch, like your burger is surrounded by two fluffy creme brulees. When you take a bite and get everything together, it’s a beautiful symphony of flavors.
On the side I got their cole slaw, which came with feta and craisins in it, cranking up the saltiness and sweetness. This was easily the most unique slaw I’ve had, light like a salad rather than the heaviness of your typical mayo-based version.
After my second burger of the weekend, it was time for my third rooftop.
From the Rooftop Restaurant
It’s hard to miss the Cambria Hotel from its massive and colorful mural on the facade. Then once you walk in the lobby it’s hard to miss the adjacent restaurant Breakfast Bitch. At first the brunch spot seems like a quiet neighbor, but then the door swings open and you hear what sounds like a club with whooping crowds, a DJ, and even the faint sounds of diners eating.
I took a quick elevator ride up to the rooftop which was absolutely stunning. There was a fully open view of the city with tables surrounding the perimeter, all framing a swimming pool in the center. It must be quite a liability to have an unguarded body of water readily available for scores of drunk patrons, but I can’t imagine it’d still be there if there had been (that many) incidents.
To drink, I ordered the Rooftop Collins, a twist on the Tom Collins with cucumber grapefruit gin, cucumber simple syrup, lemon, grapefruit, and a gin float. It was a frothy and refreshing drink with a stout gin taste even with all the citrusy components.
After downing this drink, my phone was running dangerously low on battery so I walked the quick block or two back to my homebase to charge up and prepare for dinner. Which led me to my issue: what to get for dinner? I couldn’t physically or emotionally fathom another burger or Mexican, or anything in that ballpark of heaviness, so I opted to check out well-received sushi spot called Harumi. I walked the mile or so to hopefully sit at the bar and order a few rolls, but as soon as I walked in, I stuck out like a sore thumb in my sweaty t-shirt and athletic shorts. The restaurant was clearly more upscale than I had anticipated; between this and the massive waiting crowds, I could tell Harumi was not in the cards for tonight.
I began wandering DTPHX, trying to figure out what I wanted to eat, where I would belong…who I even was. After what felt like forty days and forty nights wandering in the (literal) desert, I came across what initially seemed like a mirage but quickly materialized as a familiar sight: the Churchill, the same place where I got the burger from Stoop Kid, only now the place was packed. Every table was full, each bar and restaurant had a line, and music was blaring. The sprinklers were fortunately still very present.
Since I had already eaten at one of these spots, I wanted to check out the others.
I got the Esquite, or Mexican corn salad, which was a bit watery despite plenty of corn presence. The Carne Asada Tacos were far more satisfying. The meat was incredibly tender and bursting with the flavors of its marinade.
Freak Brothers Pizza
Each of these pizzas is made fresh to order, whether you’re concocting your own or going with one of their speciality pizzas. I did the latter and got the Buffalo BBQ Fusion pie, which has a BBQ base with mozzarella, grilled chicken, red onions, a drizzle of ranch, a swirl of buffalo, and a garnish of fresh cilantro. The buffalo and BBQ flavors play so well together and the cilantro cranks everything up to eleven (I’m starting to think cilantro on pizza was the sneaky MVP of the entire weekend of eating). They also randomly serve a family recipe of Hummus, which I didn’t get but was certainly intrigued by.
After another full day of food and bev, I was beat and ready to rest up before a day of not only eating but flying back east as well.
Despite the Airbnb host’s promises, the air conditioning was not fixed so I once again woke up in a sauna around 4:00 AM, unable to go back to sleep. The dilemma here is that none of the places where I wanted to eat opened until 9:00 AM so I had a tidy five hours to kill. Even the coffee shops didn’t open until 7:00 AM, so I had a lazy morning until around 8:00, when I started walking to a nearby coffee shop called Kahvi.
This is a very cool spot that had posters and other signs promoting different events, hanging art, and clearly doing plenty to bring the community in. It was already pretty crowded for early on a Sunday morning, with a high energy level though not quite hectic. It was a relaxing place to enjoy my iced americano, which had a toasted flavor, really letting the beans speak without being overpowering.
As I left a little before 9:00 AM to grab my third and final breakfast burrito, I noticed that throughout most of the weekend, I’ve hardly had my headphones in while walking around. Normally, I can barely take the garbage out without throwing on a few minutes of a podcast, but being in a new city I found myself highly engaged with my surroundings.
I got to Rodiberto’s Mexican Food, a Mexican joint I discovered the night before while wandering the area, which listed its Sunday hours as opening at 9:00 AM, but when I got to the door, they had a handwritten sign saying they were closed today. I nearly fell to my knees in heartbreak.
If this trip had taught me anything thus far, besides the desert indeed being hot, it was how to roll with the punches and always have a backup plan. Fortunately, I had exactly that in my next burger stop.
Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.
AZWBC (not sure if they go by this abbreviation, but it’s way easier to type out) has a massive outdoor patio and a pretty sizable interior as well. A slight hiccup arose, however, because their Google listing said they open at 9:00, a sign outside said 11:00, and a manager came out and said 9:30. As I was cycling once again through the five stages of grief, the manager rushed back out and corrected his earlier statement and they were actually open. The day is saved!
I can’t say I’ve ever had a burger at 9:00 AM, but this has been a weekend full of irregularities. I got the Downtowner Burger, which comes with: fire-roasted corn guacamole, pepper jack, crispy onion strings, lettuce, tomato, and chipotle ranch.
The corn guacamole added a strong smokiness and the onion strings brought a nice crunch to the mix. They asked if I wanted the burger cooked pink, which I did, though it was even a little pinker than I’d expected. Let’s just say if I was the grillmaster at a party, I’d be a little nervous to serve these, but obviously I trust a restaurant to cook it to a safe temp.
After my slaw revelation at Angel’s Trumpet Ale House the day before, I was ready to chase that high with the jalapeño slaw at AZWBC. It had a deep southwestern flavor profile thanks to the spicy jalapenos and the bite of the raw red onions and carrots. It was mayo-based but not overly creamy… a well-composed slaw.
At this point, I had a treacherous window to navigate, where I had to check out of my clearly cursed Airbnb by 11:00 AM and my flight was at 3:00 PM and I still had to eat one more tamale and breakfast burrito quite soon after eating this burger. I’m not saying I deserve a Pulitzer, but did you ever see that hack Robert Frost house this much food?
To kill an hour or so while I worked my appetite back up, I headed to a German brewery for a quick beer and to catch some of the early NFL games.
Pedal Haus Brewery
There’s a lot to love about a brewery, but the number one pro is that they brew their own beer. No offense intended at Miller Lite (okay, some offense intended) but there’s nothing like drinking something that’s simply unavailable anywhere else in the beer world. I got their Day Drinker light lager, which was immensely sippable, and certainly more enjoyable than the Colts – Jaguars game on the TV in front of me at the bar.
I knew they had a rooftop bar up top so, even though I didn’t have time to properly enjoy it, I made a quick trip upstairs to check out their pleasant biergarten, which didn’t have much of a view but had plenty to enjoy on the roof itself.
After I polished off my Day Drinker (having become a day drinker myself, if you will), I called a ride to bookend my trip with one last tamale and one last breakfast burrito.
This restaurant was packed but I was fortunately able to get a table in the back. I was treated to hot and fresh chips with two salsas (a spicy red option and a milder green one). Then the entrees arrived and were far more intimidating than I’d expected.
The chorizo breakfast burrito was simply scrumptious. The spice and flavor were as good as it gets, though it fell apart after my first bite (which led me to invent a nifty new dish of breakfast nachos). If not for the structural integrity, this would’ve been a perfect 10.
The tamale was quite different than the others I had eaten this weekend. For one, it was already removed from the husk (if there was even a husk to begin with) and it was drowning in a creamy red sauce. Despite so much sauce, the taste of the masa still came through unhindered.
By this point, I had spilled no fewer than six separate times on my white t-shirt (probably not the most practical fashion choice) and shorts, so I was an absolute mess by the time I got to the airport, probably earning my way onto a few government watch lists.
As I boarded my plane back to Atlanta, covered in red tamale sauce and the remnants of the desert heat, I had no more confidence than before about what type of city Phoenix is. But I could tell you for sure that it was a city I loved and had clearly taken for granted. Now only was the downtown bustling, the bar scene hopping, and the food world thriving, but this was a city that knows exactly what it is and who it’s for.
So while I still don’t know what the deal is with Phoenix, Arizona, I can definitely say that I’m a fan.