It’s springtime in metro Phoenix, and the signs are everywhere: The palo verdes are in bloom, the air smells of orange blossoms, and co-workers are starting to call in sick so they can go watch the Diamondbacks play the Cubs while day drinking during the week. Cactus League baseball has officially returned to the Valley.
For out-of-state baseball fans, a crucial part of any successful spring training expedition is finding great local spots to eat and drink. You could hit up some Phoenix food greats — I’m talking bucket-list spots like Pizzeria Bianco and Barrio Cafe. Or you can explore slightly less obvious terrain. In that vein, here are 10 metro Phoenix restaurants that hungry spring training visitors should try at least once.
Rito’s Mexican Food
15643 North Reems Road, #106, Surprise
Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; closed Sunday
Your choice of burrito at Rito’s is essentially limited to red or green. But what this hole-in-the-wall west side Mexican spot (the second location of a central Phoenix staple) lacks in selection, it makes up in drippy, meaty, extravagantly saucy burritos and enchiladas. The thing to order at least once is the green chile burrito, which is not so much a burrito as it is a ladleful of peppery, ultra-savory beef stew that happens to be wrapped up in a stretchy flour tortilla. Order it enchilada-style — that is, buried under a shimmering layer of melted yellow cheese and sauce. Devour it with the gusto of somebody who may not see a green chile burrito of this caliber in months. Service at Rito’s is casual and fast, so this is a good spot for a quick, inexpensive bite before or after a game at Surprise Stadium or the Peoria Sports Complex.
6922 East Main Street, Scottsdale
Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Wood-fired pizza and craft beer come together beautifully at Craft 64, an Old Town Scottsdale restaurant and bar that has the easygoing appeal of a neighborhood British pub. Craft beer connoisseurs will come for the rotating selection of about 36 brews on tap — all local. Everyone else will be enticed by the freshly baked focaccia bread, the homemade mozzarella, or perhaps the strong menu of blistery, Neapolitan-style pies. If you crave spice, try the savory aji pizza, which pairs juicy rounds of fennel sausage with a tangy, jalapeño-laced sauce.
8258 West Thunderbird Road, Peoria
Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Stopping by Tacos Calafia for a quick taco infusion is highly recommended if you’re headed to a game in the northwest Valley. Heck — it’s highly recommended even if you have no pending games near Peoria or Surprise. This relatively new taqueria, an offshoot of a popular Peoria food truck, is simply that good. The spartan menu features top-notch al pastor and carne asada. Try the wonderful al pastor mulita, two freshly pressed corn tortillas stuffed with gently charred, chile-sluiced pork.
7246 East First Street, #101, Scottsdale
Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Sometimes you need a cozy, dimly lit spot to recover from an afternoon spent baking in the bleachers. Karsen’s Grill is this kind of place, a low-key bar and grill in Old Town Scottsdale with friendly bartenders, cold beer, and a fun menu of deep-fried, creative bar grub. Try the drippy, spicy artery clogger that’s known as the Southwest Cardiac, a colossal burger oozing fried pepperjack cheese and thick-cut strips of jalapeno-spiked bacon. Other highlights include the crispy yet lush fried mac and cheese sticks, and a fried bologna sandwich that’s as delicious as it is uncomplicated. Karsen’s Grill is located conveniently within walking distance to Scottsdale Stadium, and it’s often less crowded than other popular Old Town gathering spots like Don & Charlie’s and the Sugar Bowl.
15226 West Bell Road, Surprise
Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Monday
In the far west Valley, chain restaurants still prevail. But there are some wonderful exceptions to the rule, including Mom’s Fixins, a friendly Surprise cafe with one of the largest menus of Southern-style eats on the west side. Every meal at Mom’s Fixins starts with a complimentary plate of very good homemade biscuits and sausage gravy — not too shabby. Follow that up with the restaurant’s fluffy, lightly spicy jalapeño-bacon cornbread waffle, which pairs beautifully with specialties like fried catfish, or the restaurant’s very good golden-crisp fried chicken.
1524 East University Drive, Mesa
Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; closed Sunday
A fitting way to cap off a leisurely afternoon at the ballpark is with a visit to Backyard Taco, a popular and laid-back taco spot that’s convenient to Mesa and Tempe ballparks. You order at the counter, where you’re greeted by smell the carne asada and pollo cooking on the restaurant’s massive mesquite charcoal grill. The tender, smoky meats are garnished simply — just some cabbage, onions, and the kitchen’s signature red salsa — and you can dress up your taco or burrito at the salsa bar. Bringing the whole family? Try the paquete familiar, or family pack, which comes furnished with a pound of your favorite meat, plus a stack of tortillas and salsa for your taco-making pleasure.
El Caprichoso Hot Dogs Estilo Sonora
2826 North 35th Avenue
Tuesday through Thursday 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.; closed Monday
You can’t leave Arizona without inhaling at least one Sonoran hot dog. The bacon-wrapped, mayonnaise-sluiced street food of the Sonora-Arizona borderlands is so popular these days, it’s now sold at stadium snack bars. One of the best renditions in town, though, is at El Caprichoso Hot Dogs, a humble hot dog stand with outdoor picnic seating and fast, courteous service. The juicy dogs are squeezed into fluffy, split-top buns and furnished with beans, pico, a dusting of salty cheese, and a squiggle of mayonnaise. It’s a minor feast that’ll run you less than $5.
Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.
721 North Arizona Avenue, #103, Gilbert
Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Serious craft beer aficionados will go to Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. in Gilbert for its award-winning lineup of locally crafted beers. Founder Jonathan Buford and his team of master brewers have won national acclaim for making beers with indigenous Arizona ingredients like foraged-in-the-wild juniper berries and White Sonoran wheat. Like the best neighborhood beer halls, though, Arizona Wilderness is also a great hangout spot. The food is Arizona-inspired American brewpub fare, which means enormous, bacon-laden burgers, and a strong lineup of chicken and pork sandwiches. Try the chicken and jalapeño popper sandwich for a deliciously gooey and savory meal.
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ZuZu at Hotel Valley Ho
6850 East Main Street, Scottsdale
Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.
Old Town Scottsdale’s midcentury-chic Hotel Valley Ho is a place steeped in local spring training history. Over the years, the hotel has hosted everybody from Ted Williams to Rickey Henderson to rookie upstarts. You can soak up the history at the hotel’s in-house restaurant, ZuZu, which manages to feel at once posh yet also totally relaxed. Come dressed in a baseball T-shirt and shorts, or the swankiest thing in your suitcase — either way, you’ll feel at home. The menu of casual yet refined modern American eats includes dinner entrees like pan-roasted chicken in a smoked bacon and tomato jus, and braised duck served with a mushroom ragout. ZuZu really shines as a weekend breakfast destination, though — the Bloody Mary bar is formidable, and brioche French toast served with passion fruit curd is worth the time it takes to secure a booth during the brunch rush.
5594 Wild Horse Pass Boulevard at Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass
Tuesday to Thursday 5:30 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday
Kai doesn’t fit neatly into conventional spring training eating and drinking agendas. But it’s an indispensable metro Phoenix restaurant for visiting foodies with deep pockets. The restaurant serves creative Native American-influenced fare in a fine dine setting with impeccable service — it’s no accident that Kai is currently the only AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five Star restaurant in Arizona. The restaurant offers two tasting menus, which feature heirloom Arizona ingredients, game, and vegetables sourced locally from the Gila River Indian Community. The most popular a la carte entree, though, is probably the restaurant’s signature grilled buffalo tenderloin, a nicely cooked lean steak bolstered by a touch of saguaro blossom syrup.