Casino Arizona at Salt River
You'll never guess who we ran into the other night. Donna Summer! Yes! But that's not all! We also met Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Gloria Estefan, the Four Tops and Elvis. It was so cool.

It was also so fake. The artists -- impersonators, of course -- are part of the Showstoppers Live performance at Casino Arizona. They play Sundays and Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m., and Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.

Okay, so we didn't exactly collect autographs. But with just 250 seats in the cabaret, we felt almost like family.

Phoenix Police Museum
One day we wandered into the Phoenix Police Museum, and we were charmed by the experience. It's like a little Disneyland for cops, complete with faux streetscapes. Artifacts date from the late 1800s, when officers patrolled the 3.1-square-mile city on foot, and the patrol wagon was pulled by a horse named Old Nelly. We can climb in and around a patrol car and a police motorcycle. We can try on uniforms, including a flak jacket and gun belt. We can stick our heads through a cutout full-size police officer for a photo.

Yet the most touching thing is the room dedicated to officers killed in action. And now, there's another monument -- a wall of fame for service dogs killed in action. After the events of last year, it makes for an especially poignant moment.

Sahuaro Ranch Park Historical Area
Until NASA perfects time travel, we'll travel to this 17-acre park to get a glimpse of the good ol' days. This home, home on the range, where the peacocks and bunnies do play, ranks among the West Valley's prettiest places. The ranch's original buildings, open for tours, are oldies but goodies -- the Main House Museum dates back to 1895, the fruit-packing shed to 1891. Outside, visitors can wander the rose garden, historic orchard, vineyard and barnyard.

A year-round schedule of old-time events keeps the ranch a-rockin'. Next up: Sahuaro Ranch Days, November 9-10, followed by Christmas at the Ranch and the "Great Quilts of the West" exhibition opening in January. In February, the Antique Tractor and Engine Show rolls in, and spring brings May's Grand Canyon Sweet Onion Festival. Whether you come to admire the doilies or the antique tractors, fun doesn't get more down-home than this.

COFCO Chinese Cultural Center
We long for our days spent wandering deep into New York's and San Francisco's Chinatowns, always surprised by the constant discovery of new sights, smells and sounds. But let's face it -- Phoenix can't compete. Instead, we'll just be happy that we have COFCO, the only place in town where we can gorge ourselves with Chinese culture.

Granted, it's still got that inescapable strip mall setup, although the best one in town -- with sloped, tiled roofs, a moon-reflecting pond and giant lion-dog statues out front. At the center of it all is 99 Ranch Market, a sprawling supermarket where exotic Asian vegetables, boxes of salted duck eggs and bags of dried squid share shelf space with grocery basics like tea and cereal.

We like to grab a boba tea -- cold, sweet tea served Taiwanese style, with a generous helping of tapioca balls at the bottom -- at the in-store lunch counter, then stroll the aisles to load up on goodies. Neighboring businesses include a couple of great Chinese restaurants, an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet, and a gift store offering glorious kitsch, from kung fu shoes and tiny resin Buddha statues to calligraphy sets and paper lanterns.

Every year, volunteers at the Desert Botanical Garden add to the glow of this favorite holiday event with more luminarias (brown paper bags filled with sand and a lighted candle) and more musical acts. The foliage is barely visible as you wander the brick paths through the garden, guided by the light of hundreds of luminarias, but there's more to look at than just cactus. Along the pathway you'll happen upon bell ringers, opera singers and people playing all manner of stringed instruments. Top it off with a cool, starry night and a cup of warm apple cider and a cookie, and this is our favorite way to begin the holiday season in the desert. This year, it'll be held December 6 and 7; tickets are on sale now. Be forewarned: Others like it, too. Tickets sell out early.
Postino Wine Cafe
We love Postino for the $5 glass of Merlot at lunch and the comfy couches at happy hour, but we never expected to find inspiration at a trendy wine bar -- let alone in the ladies' room. But there we sat, in a beautiful rest room big enough for a table of six, admiring the candles and the deeply hued artwork, when we happened to notice a word -- just about our height at the time, if you get our delicate drift -- stenciled on the door: CREATE. Indeed we did, and headed back to the Merlot with a chuckle.

A month later, over another lunch, we sat again, and this time noticed a new message: BE UNIQUE. That may be a bit tougher, Postino, but we'll give it a shot. And we can't wait to see what the next message will be.

Best Place To See a Peacock West of Central Avenue

Wildlife World Zoo

Wildlife World Zoo
Heading west from Phoenix, there's not much between Luke Air Force Base and the state line. But we were delighted to find a funky oasis full of creatures you'd never expect to see in these parts. The Wildlife World Zoo has the requisite lions and tigers and giraffes (we didn't see any bears), but we were surprised to see a penguin house. On a mid-May visit, the tuxedoed crew looked sweaty -- even in their air-conditioned suite -- but the peacocks (labeled "peafowl") roaming the grounds looked quite content. One got up close and fanned its feathers wide -- stunning even the grouchiest of zoogoers.
Phoenix is lousy with little theaters, and most of them are a revolving door for would-be thespians who aspire to community productions of Neil Simon comedies. These petite playhouses cater to theatergoers who'd just as soon rent videos and don't want to be troubled with shows they haven't already seen. Then there's teeny Is What It Is Theater, a group of Camelback High School alumni who for the past five seasons have pushed the arts envelope with quirky and rarely produced shows that we'd never see otherwise. Last year the kids at Is brought us the seldom-seen Gingerbread Lady; a tidy take on What I Did Last Summer; and a risky adaptation of Orson Welles' radio drama The War of the Worlds. While not every one of this tiny troupe's productions is a winner -- its production of hoary old The Curious Savage was a reminder of why no one mounts this show anymore -- it's set a standard for alternative but still commercial theater. More impressive is the fact that the troupe has done it all on a shoestring.
Some ideas need a long time to gestate, and maybe the idea of spending your lunch hour watching live drama was just one of them. But this year did mark the return of Lunch Time Theater, an elegant little plan to coax office-workers into a theater with the promise of short, entertaining plays and cheap, crunchy lunches. Actors Theatre of Phoenix first trundled out the concept in the late '80s -- known then as Brown Bag Theater -- and it worked for a few years before going on a decadelong, er, hiatus. But in its new incarnation in the Herberger Theater Center, it seems to have found its niche -- presenting one-act plays by up-and-coming companies, while audience members chew on turkey sandwiches, diced fruit and little bags of chips. It's win-win-win. Actors get to hone their chops, troupes get to test out new scripts, and stultified office drones get some really cheap entertainment: $5 for admission and $5 for lunch, catered by Teeter House. And its year-round schedule has helped put the lie to the notion that, during the summer, the Valley's theater scene is pitch black.
It's not easy getting an audience for Shakespeare in this town. And no one knows that better than Actors' Renaissance Theatre. This truly local troupe started (and still exists) on a shoestring but is held together by strong performances, well-planned seasons, and the passion of its founders, husband-and-wife team James and Ashley Barnard. ART offers up the classics of Austen, Wilde and Shakespeare, stages an annual Valley of the Sun Shakespeare Festival, and debuts original works, like its recent world première adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. None of these things is exactly known for selling hordes of tickets, but ART still manages to put on good, affordable theater without going under, and without the help of underwriting or grants. In our book, that deserves recognition.

Best Of Phoenix®

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