Valley on the Verge
After 150 years of being upstaged by its surroundings, Phoenix is reinventing itself as a city on the rise
When you think of the Phoenix area—Arizona’s “Valley of the Sun”—it’s easy to imagine golf resorts edging into the Sonoran Desert, accompanied by the tick-tick-tick of watering systems.
You might think of saguaro, the giant cactus that forms the backdrop to every Western ever made, or shops selling dream catchers, or suburbs dotted with swimming pools. But Phoenix—the fifth largest city in the U.S.—is also brimming with fantastic multicultural cuisine, groundbreaking art, hip music venues and a rich architectural tradition anchored by the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright. Here, we tap five in-the-know locals to help us discover a city that, it turns out, is remarkably full of heart.
Silvana Salcido Esparza, 58
The art of food on Calle 16
On a Saturday that would dump more than two inches of rain on Phoenix, a desert city that sees about six inches of rain a year, Silvana Salcido Esparza emerges from the Barrio Café and, sloshing past the swirl of pyrotechnic murals that adorn her 16th Street restaurant, heads for her car. “This neighborhood has always had a killer reputation for Mexican food,” she says, pulling onto a mile-long strip known for its exuberant street art and under-the-radar restaurants.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact the chef has had on Calle 16, the local name for the street. The elevated Mexican cuisine at Barrio Café, which she opened in 2002, forms the center of gravity in terms of the food scene here, but Esparza is also an influential patron of the local arts community. “The mural project at Barrio Café was some of the water that made the seed grow,” she says, gesturing at the swashes of color that have revitalized this once-neglected part of town. “We were cool before we were cool.”
Esparza’s career began in her teenage years, when she sold carnitas out of a copper pot in her father’s Merced, California, bakery. She moved to Phoenix in 1995, and now runs two of its most celebrated restaurants, Barrio Café—whose menu includes enchiladas with seafood in tomatillo-cream reduction—and the more recent Barrio Café Gran Reserva, which offers a vegan Mexican tasting menu.
As we drive south on 16th, skirting the eastern edge of the historic Coronado district, Esparza points out the eateries that give the street its flavor—the seafood joint Mariscos Ensenada, the TEG Torta Shop—along with the spaces where taco and corn vendors set up to sell to the late-night crowds. Power lines and palm trees sway over the four-lane street, which was once known more for crime than cuisine.
“I’ve been hanging out in this neighborhood for 23 years—I’ve watched it go from gangs to this,” Esparza says, referring to the arrival of places like the cheery craft beer pub The Casual Pint and the modish music-food venue The Vig Uptown.
While some of the old standbys remain, including the dive-y Royale Lounge and Rips Bar, there are also places like Ollie Vaughn’s—beanies, beards, bagels—where Esparza orders a coffee and a polvorón cookie. “I used to worry about running over drunks and hustlers,” she says with a wry smile. “Now I just worry about running over hipsters on a night out.”
At the nearby El Ranchero, a lunch crowd sits munching on basic burritos and tacos, as people have for the last two decades. Esparza orders birria de chivo, which arrives in a bowl brimming with murky brown broth and shreds of goat. “Ah,” she says over an excitable TV soccer commentator, “Calle 16 has the best Mexican.”
Along with adding creative twists to traditional Mexican dishes, Esparza’s own restaurant distinguished itself by foregoing matador paintings and wall blankets. Instead, she commissioned prominent artists like Angel Diaz and Pablo Luna to create a glorious havoc of paint, and this spirit bled out into the neighborhood, whose walls bear some of the most talked-about artworks in town.
Lunch over, Esparza heads north toward The Hive, one of the institutions that have cemented Calle 16’s status as an art hub. Inside, in one of the studios, we find a jeweler setting turquoise and twisting wires. In the main gallery is a show that curator Julie Magee calls “a beautiful mess”—rust-red landscapes, political caricatures, light-up body parts—work garnered from 35 local artists, all with the neighborhood in their blood.
“Like-minded people come together,” Esparza says, looking around the room with a smile, “and this is what you see.”
Andrew Pielage, 41
Frank Lloyd Wright in the desert
A concrete ramp spirals toward the entryway of a disc-shaped house in Arcadia, an upscale neighborhood in Central Phoenix. About halfway round, the view opens up to reveal the jagged bulk of Camelback Mountain, whose contours dominate the Phoenix skyline. Devotees of Frank Lloyd Wright will recognize the aesthetic here: This is the David and Gladys Wright House, built by the architect in 1952 for his son and daughter-in-law.
Andrew Pielage, the unofficial photographer for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, walks up the ramp with an easy smile, pointing out how the overhang of Wright’s metallic roof traces the contours of the mountain. “He has these touches in all of his properties,” he says, “and they’re just awesome.” Pielage has shot 60 Wright structures around the U.S.—and hopes to one day shoot them all. His connection to this one, though, runs especially deep: “I got married here.”
Between 1937 and 1959, the year of his death, Wright wintered at Taliesin West—now the foundation’s headquarters—in the dusty foothills of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale. More than 10 of Wright’s Phoenix buildings still stand today. “We’re lucky to have so much of his work in the area,” Pielage says. “It’s also wonderful that some of these sites are open for us to tour, and even stay in, like the Arizona Biltmore.” He opens the door to this one, which is currently for sale at $12 million, and reflexively reaches for his camera.
A few years ago, Pielage moved to Downtown Phoenix to exhibit his photography on Roosevelt Row, a broad strip of bars, restaurants and art spaces that has become the cultural heartbeat of the city. On the first Friday of each month, the galleries here host open houses, creating one of the largest public art walk in America. “It’s a great opportunity for amateur artists,” Pielage says. “And there’s food trucks, music, entertainment.”
Predictably, however, the creatives have been closely followed by real estate speculators, retailers and upscale restaurateurs. “Artists are what made that culture on Roosevelt Row and made it cool,” Pielage says, “but many of us have been priced out of the neighborhood.” He recently moved his gallery to the up-and-coming Garfield area.
A cluster of bungalows dating from the late 19th century to the 1950s, Garfield is home to some of the city’s buzziest venues, including the FilmBar, which combines indie cinema and a trendy drinking spot, and the gastropub Angels Trumpet Ale House. From his porch, Pielage can see Gallo Blanco, a red-hot Mexican restaurant set in a 1920s-era grocery store. Not surprisingly, the neighborhood’s revival coincided with the exodus of artists from Roosevelt Row. “There’s a rich history of art here,” Pielage says in a furtive tone, as if he doesn’t want this information to spread too far.
Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Pielage turns to the natural world for inspiration. Camelback is a bit busy for his taste—he prefers South Mountain, the largest city park in the U.S., where he and his wife often take sunset strolls. “The last time I was up there we had beautiful views of Downtown,” he says.
“There was a family of coyotes yipping. The landscape was brown rocks and all the saguaro up there were amazing.”
He pauses, his mind lost amid the desert ironwood and cholla cactus and sagebrush. “There’s skyscrapers right there,” he says, “and then there’s owls.”
Mo Rodriguez, 32
Nerding out Uptown
Every morning, in thousands of vehicles crisscrossing the checkerboard streets of Phoenix, drivers rely on Mo Rodriguez to keep them company. “Alright,” she is saying now, riffing on the news that NASA’s Kepler space telescope has reached the end of its journey, “we have to pour out a little bit of liquor for the telescope.” Cue plaintive music: “Goodbyeeee, moonmen!”
Rodriguez—or, as her business card reads, “Mo!”—is the sole host of the alternative radio station Alt AZ 93.3’s morning show. She’s on from 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. five days a week, and, despite rising for work at an unholy hour, routinely hits the concert circuit at night. Her favorite spots include Crescent Ballroom, a Downtown club that used to be a garage, and, a few blocks west, The Van Buren, which opened in 2017 on the site of a former auto dealership.
This evening, she’s on the second-floor terrace of the Crescent, eating chips and crushing through a bottle of fiery chile de árbol salsa. From here, you can see glassy towers reflecting the setting sun. It feels cozy, serene, in contrast to the manic energy of the barroom below.
Rodriguez, who has teal hair and a nose-ring, was born in Phoenix, which makes her a bit of a novelty in a city known for its transient population. “You think you’re going to get out of here, do something different,” she says, “But Phoenix has grown into its own beautiful monster—so many different types of music and culture and food.”
She digs into a taco al pastor, deploying even more of the rust-red salsa. “Things in Phoenix are much more spread apart,” Rodriguez continues, referring to how diffuse the city is—an hour by car from north to south—which she believes suits the local temperament. “It’s not like your typical city where everyone is hustling and bustling. Everyone’s just kind of taking their time.”
Downstairs, a line has started to form for the night’s act, a rock band from Ohio. Tonight, though, Rodriguez won’t be catching a show. She’s headed uptown to Cobra Arcade, where she plans to sip G&Ts and play House of the Dead 2. A self-described “huge nerd,” her radio show has a segment promising “news by nerds, for nerds.”
Rodriguez haunts a number of spots that meet her nerdy needs. She’s a big fan of the Arizona Science Center, whose permanent exhibits include a center for “financial literacy” and the American Airlines Flight Zone (complete with paper airplane launcher). She only gets tattoos from Colossus, a shop east of Phoenix, and buys music from Zia Record Exchange in Central Phoenix. “I usually nerd out on the vinyl, funk-o pops,” she says.
By now, night has fallen over Phoenix. Before I have a chance to ask her what funk-o pops are, Rodriguez gets up to leave for the arcade. “There’s so many hidden pockets of adventure here,” she calls back as she makes for the door.
Dwayne Allen, 43
Green shoots in Evans Churchill
On a bike-share cycle, smoking a 10-inch cigar, Dwayne Allen pedals down 1st Street. “We’re often out here when the weather’s nice,” he says. The “we” is Allen and his wife, Danielle Leoni. She is the chef behind the popular The Breadfruit & Rum Bar. Allen presides over the bar, which stocks roughly 170 kinds of rum but no other spirits.
Allen moved to Phoenix from Jamaica in 1992. After a career in tech, he worked for City Hall for a while before opening Breadfruit a decade ago. “For me, Phoenix really has this draw to it,” he says. “As I got older, this draw turned to a vision of possibilities, because this was a new city that was morphing and turning and growing.”
Riding south, we pass through the resurgent Evans Churchill area, home to The Churchill, a funky mixed-use complex made of shipping containers, whose venues include Pobrecito, a Cuban-inspired craft cocktail bar, and Freak Brothers Pizza, which serves vegan pies. A community activist, Allen has long been a supporter of the project. “It fits squarely with efforts to eliminate, or to activate, the vacant lots that have plagued this community,” he says. The Churchill has indeed injected fresh life into the area, attracting droves of visitors, who gather to sip craft beers, lounge at tables and throw games of cornhole in the courtyard.
Allen swings east onto Monroe Street. His blazer billows. The tip of his cigar glows. We pull into Heritage Square, a cluster of gorgeous Victorian houses, one of which, Rosson House, has been made into a city museum. Other conversions include the buzzy Pizzeria Bianco and Nobuo at Teeter House, in which the James Beard Award-winning Nobuo Fukuda serves up imaginative twists on Japanese cuisine.
“This is a fabulous place,” Allen says, gesturing at the old trees and houses around him, though he is impatient for the square to become more fabulous still. “Clearly, it can be done,” he says. “You’ve seen what Nobuo has done. Imagine ice cream carts, people lying about reading books and playing with their dogs.”
Inside Nobuo, floorboards creak as we head for the tiny bar. Allen orders us oysters with ponzu, then turns to one of his favorite subjects: trees. “I come from a tropical environment where trees abound,” he says. In Phoenix, trees do not abound—though if Allen gets his way, that would change. As co-chair of the Urban Heat Island/Tree and Shade Subcommittee, he has vigorously lobbied the city for the strategic planting of trees. “We want a walkable city,” he says. “For that to apply, we need to keep the sun rays off of concrete and asphalt. Shade is a luxury in our city—really, a luxury.”
Even Allen’s choice of bar has an air of civic responsibility to it: He wants to take me to Bitter & Twisted for a nightcap, in part because he is keen to support a “historic” drinking spot—a label he applies more for its quality than for its longevity (the bar, opened in 2014, is frequently ranked among the best in the country). “The city has never had a bar at this level,” Allen says, pushing through heavy red curtains and taking his place alongside a bunch of sharp-dressed drinkers. “Hey, what’s good?” he says to a bartender.
A riff on a daiquiri arrives. “Ross and his crew are dedicated people,” Allen says, referring to the bar’s owner Ross Simon. “They put the work in to ensure that when a drink comes before you, it’s top notch.” At this point, sipping his cocktail beneath a multicolor mural and pink neon sign, Allen raises another Phoenix-related matter that gets his blood up: “So, the parking meters … ”
Bob Hoag, 45
Booths and beats Downtown
Bob Hoag, owner of the flying Blanket recording studio, sits in a tiny bar on Roosevelt Row nursing a hard cider. A producer, engineer and indie rock musician, Hoag moved to Phoenix from Pittsburgh with his band, Pollen, in 1995. “I’m usually playing in two or three different bands,” he says of his life here now. “So I end up going to a lot of venues.”
Tonight, the first venue is The Lost Leaf. It’s a rough-edged house just off the Row, with outdoor seating and a modest stage area in the back. “This is one of my favorite places to play,” Hoag says, citing decent acoustics.
Sipping his drink, Hoag describes himself as an “old school” producer. “I record on tape, and I mix it through a board.” His look follows a similar vein. His leather jacket is from the ’50s. His khakis are “actually Korean War-era marine dress pants.” His hair is glazed into a flawless quiff. Then there’s the car: a brown 1973 Mercedes 280 SE 4.5, in which Hoag has offered to show me some of his favorite local haunts.
The machine soughs off, the ride smooth. As we reach the concentrated heart of Downtown, a warning light comes on and Hoag pats the dash. “I’m trying to reassure her,” he says. “Her temperature is getting up.” He parks on a street branching from North Central Avenue and walks into an alleyway. At the end, where the alley meets another, a crowd stands smoking cigarettes. A neon sign sears the night above a door: Valley Bar.
Hoag enters, moves downstairs and cuts through a long, low bar, taking a booth near the back. “The last few times I’ve been Downtown, I’ve been amazed by how much it has changed,” he says. While it’s true that scores of hip restaurants and bars have opened in the area—like the speakeasy-style Melinda’s Alley and the modern Mexican eatery Centrico—the music scene has pulsed on just the same. “Whatever you like, there’s a scene for it,” Hoag says. “There’s a metal scene, psychedelic rock, regular-old punk, a heavy indie rock scene.”
Valley Bar is one of his favorite places to see a show. It’s all about the bar’s artfully gloomy vibe, which Hoag says feels like “a movie set.” A door to our right opens, assailing us with the blare of a jazz band performing to a packed room. “It’s not super common to find people who were born and raised in Phoenix,” Hoag says above the din. “Everybody seems to be from all over. It’s an interesting melting pot.”
Hoag loves Phoenix for its hard, funky edges. He loves the throwback Welcome Diner, just east of Downtown, with its funhouse color scheme and Southern-style comfort food. He loves the vintage clothing store Antique Sugar, every bit as bright and brash as the Welcome. He loves Gracie’s Tax Bar, a red-lit dive set in an old accountant’s office, out west in the “sketchy” part of the avenues—where, rising, he’s off to next.
Organizer of the Bird City Comedy Festival
“I love Jade Bar at Sanctuary Resort. Located on the north side of Camelback Mountain, in beautiful Paradise Valley, Jade Bar serves up delicious, inventive cocktails, while its floor-to-ceiling windows provide one of the best views in the city. Phoenix also has a lively comedy scene. From major clubs to bar shows to improv, the city has a little bit of something for every comedy fan.”
Owner, Nelson’s Meat + Fish
“Two things I dearly miss are offshore fishing and golf. We can’t fix the first one here in the Valley, but I have found a solution for the latter. I have a friend who works at Papago Golf Course and sometimes he will call me to be first off the tee on Mondays. The round typically starts at sunrise (5:30 a.m.) and regardless of how I’m playing, the beauty of dawn on that course always helps me stay centered.”
Cabinet of Curiousities
“I have no interest in owning a giant elk’s head, but I love this cozy, mahogany-lined emporium of taxidermy and other exotica. Curious Nature offers only ethically sourced items, which include museum-quality oddities like professionally cleaned skulls of squirrels and zebras. Framed butterflies, moths and grasshoppers make this place look like an art gallery.”
Head Brewer, Wren House Brewing Co.
Barbecue to Love
“Little Miss BBQ is one of those places that lives up to the hype. In a short time, it’s become a landmark for excellence in barbecue. I also love Phoenix Zoo. My family has been going there since it opened [in 1962], and now I get to continue the tradition with my daughter. I don’t care how old you are, or what your idea of a good time is; any day at the Phoenix Zoo is a great day.”
Strawberries and Pho
“Every time I go into the Realeza Michoacana ice cream parlor, I feel like a little kid—the walls are full of funny illustrations; they even have funhouse mirrors. My favorite is the fresas con crema, a ‘drink’ with cream and fresh strawberries. I’m also a huge fan of Da Vang. I love their bánh mì and pho, but their noodles and barbecue pork is always a good choice when I can’t decide!”
Kimpton Hotel Palomar
This sleek 242-room hotel with a touch of design whimsy (above) also has a rooftop pool with views of both the city skyline and nearby mountains.
Built in 1929 with Frank Lloyd Wright as a consulting architect, this resort sits near a mountain preserve and boasts a golf course.
Gila River Hotel & Casino, Wild Horse Pass
Thirty minutes outside of town, Gila Wild Horse has live entertainment from touring stars like Toni Braxton, as well as gaming, and dining at Asian-inspired Ling & Louie’s.