I whine a lot about what a teardown town Phoenix is, about how buildings, no matter their significance, get knocked over all the time, taking with them what passes for "history" and "sense of place" around here. But there's another Phoenix-centric trend that bears mentioning, one that almost offsets the lack of architectural continuity in our city.
I'm talking about all the commercial buildings that have been rather inexpertly transformed into something else — the myriad Taco Bells that have become bars and brokerage firms yet retained that distinctive bell-shaped sign out front (check out the Philadelphia hoagie place on Central Avenue that, I am certain, still takes bewildered requests for MexiMelts and Gorditas). Or the weird, pineapple-shaped "volcano building" at Metrocenter that used to be a Western Savings and is now home to a Souper Salad. Or the Castle Boutique at 27th Avenue and Dunlap that used to be an emissions-testing station.
There's my brother Dave's favorite, the old Labelle's department store on West Dunlap that is now Imagine School at Cortez Park. "That one always makes me laugh," Dave told me recently, "because I knew a lot of stoners in high school who used to sit across the street at Cortez Park and imagine school." And for me, there's the weirdest and most heartbreaking example: the transformation of the once-lovely, flagstone-studded WesTown Shopping Center, just north of Cactus at Black Canyon Highway, into the nondenominational Calvary Church. No matter how often I drive by, it still creeps me out that all that gorgeous flagstone has been blasted off the center's façade, and that the colossal neon starburst sign out front that once announced notions sales at TG&Y is now warning passersby about the wages of sin.
Calvary Church looks like a shopping center with a crucifix grafted onto it, but this place has nothing on the buildings that really pull at my sentimental heartstrings (but can never pull off a new identity): the several triangular restaurants that were once — and to me will always remain — Der Wienerschnitzels. This chain of hot dog stands, founded in 1961 by California restaurateur John Galardi, was distinctive not so much for its special sausages as for its wacky A-frame architecture. The dogs at Der Wienerschnitzel weren't much different from the Oscar Mayers that Mom boiled on the Hotpoint at home, but there was something fun and kind of exotic about eating at a place that shot straight up into the air, its pointy, sky-reaching peak like a demented Swiss chalet. At age 6, I thought that this must be what all buildings in Germany looked like, and I always ordered my wienies with kraut, just to get the full-on Germanic experience.
It was also pretty darn decadent to order your food while still sitting in your car, because Der Wienerschnitzel was the first drive-through restaurant in town — a giant triangle with a massive hole in its middle through which one drove to request wieners and Cokes. Watching Dad pull his car straight through a building, as if it were a giant redwood in Yosemite, was an impossible thrill in 1960s suburbia.
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Today, one can still drive through a Der Wienerschnitzel, because they're all still standing, although all but one has morphed into a Mexican food restaurant. But they're not fooling me nor, I'm guessing, anyone else who grew up here. You can sell flautas all day long, but if you're housed in a colossal Tyrolean tepee in Phoenix, you're a Der Wienerschnitzel; no amount of paint or gingerbread can obliterate that giant, red-peaked roof. (One amateur online food critic, raving about the burritos at the Isberto's on Bethany Home Road, was right when she wrote, "You can see this great burrito joint from the freeway. Look for the red-peaked roof — I'm sure this was a Der Wienerschnitzel at one point . . .")
I called Isberto's, hoping they could answer a question that has long been with me: What exactly fills up all that space inside the big, peaked roofs of these transformed tube-steak emporiums? Do the workers enjoy exceptionally high ceilings? Does each contain a mammoth (and now-disconnected) wiener machine?
Unfortunately, the fellow I spoke to at Mariscos al Tata (which I can't help but think means "Seafood of the Tits") didn't speak much English. He didn't seem to know or care that his shrimp taco stand on Indian School Road was once a Der Wienerschnitzel, and when I asked about the impossibly high ceilings there, he kept saying, "Sí, eat outside!"
Still looking for answers, I drove out to the modern-day, very ordinary-looking Wienerschnitzel (the chain, now a franchise, appears to have dropped both the "Der" from its name and all vestiges of its once-distinctive architecture) on McClintock Drive in Tempe. I resisted the Chipotle-Ranch Pupsters listed on the menu and went straight for the Deluxe Dog, which turned out to be a very unexceptional beef frank in a grocery-store bun glopped with mustard and onions. It was high noon, but the place was mostly empty and, as I sat hunched over my hot wiener, I thought about how I wasn't having any fun here, how I felt not exotic nor kitschy nor daring, but just sort of sad and a little embarrassed. I was a lunchtime loser, eating boiled meat on a busy street inside a building where, right up there, almost in reach, I could see the ceiling.