Welcome to the 2018 edition of The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix
34: Martinis at AZ88
AZ88 calls itself a "modern saloon," a description that evokes swinging doors, country music, and lots of whiskey behind the bar.
AZ88, though, is a different kind of saloon — one with high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a serious propensity for modern art. The restaurant and bar, which is tucked into the Scottsdale Civic Plaza greenbelt (a.k.a. "art alley"), is as famous for its elaborate, ephemeral art installations as it is for its ultra-stiff martinis.
The restaurant is owned by restaurateur Karl Kopp, whose parents started the beloved Kopp's Frozen Custard empire in Milwaukee in the 1950s. Kopp opened AZ88 back in 1988 (hence the name), where it quickly earned a reputation as one of Old Town Scottsdale's most unique lunch, dinner, and late-night spots.
New art rotates into the AZ88 dining room about every four months. Last winter, the centerpiece of the dining room was an enormous Christmas tree made out of dollar bills. More recently, the wall space behind the bar featured an oversize mural depicting a slightly creepy menagerie of plastic dolls.
If the art in the dining room doesn't wow you, check out the restaurant's unisex bathroom, which was designed by the late, great Scottsdale designer Janis Leonard. It's a trippy mirrored room buzzing with neon and music, a surreal space that only gets weirder with every passing drink.
Although there are all kinds of classic cocktails on the bar menu, the specialty at AZ88 is the martini. There are more than a dozen specialty versions on the menu, everything from lemon drops to an espresso martini bolstered by Kahlua, Baileys, and a shot of coffee. Whatever you pick, your martini will be served in a large, chilled, hand-blown glass that's been filled to the rim. The waitstaff at AZ88 receives special training to learn how to balance the overflowing glasses on serving trays and deliver them without spilling a drop.
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On the food side of the menu, there's a pretty extensive selection of elevated bar fare, including burgers and sandwiches. You'll also find quirky throwbacks like water chestnuts marinated in teriyaki sauce, then wrapped in Wisconsin's own Nueske’s bacon. It's a compelling and distinctive dish, and like AZ88 itself, you probably won't find another one in Scottsdale exactly like it.
AZ88.;7353 East Scottsdale Mall, Scottsdale; 480-994-5576.
Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.
The Essentials so far:
50: Soul food platter at Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles
49: The Bear at Short Leash Hot Dogs + Rollover Doughnuts
48: Grilled squid and other specialties at Andreoli Italian Grocer
47: I-10 Nachos at Cocina 10
46: Coffee made from ROC2 beans
45: The Haturo Sub Sandwich at Cheese 'n Stuff
44: Zookz at Zookz
43: Jade Red Chicken at Chino Bandido
42: Tasting menu at Quiessence at The Farm
41: Single-origin Papua New Guinea Bar at Zak's Chocolate
40: Green chile at Casa Reynoso
39: Brûlée burger from Paradise Valley Burger Company
38: Hand-pulled noodles from China Magic Noodle House
37: Carne adovada sliders at Dick's Hideaway
36: Crispy Pig Ear and Amaro cocktails from Crudo
35: Chile-laced specialties from Cafe Ga Hyang
34: Martinis at AZ88