BEST NEIGHBORHOOD BAR, NORTH PHOENIX 2005 | Joe's Grotto | People & Places
One might assume that Joe Grotto is a bit pompous, given that he named his north Valley speakeasy after himself. But after you encounter the friendly and down-to-earth owner (if you can manage to flag him down as he eagerly interacts with customers, that is), you'll discover how appearances can often be deceiving. The same goes for Joe's drinking establishment. Tucked into a nondescript corner of a quiet strip mall, Joe's is actually a rockin' bar and hot music spot. Grotto enthusiastically welcomes you to his place, gushing about how his joint is a gathering spot for all kinds, be they teased-haired aging cock-rockers, polo-shirt-clad office drones, or belly-shirt-wearing ladies of the night. He's equally amped about booking local acts like the classic rockers of Sluggo, the female-fronted rock foursome Downward Dog, or the extreme thrashers of (sic)monic. Joe's is fast filling the Valley's need for a serious hard-rock venue, a void left by the closure of the Mason Jar earlier this year. You go, Joe.
Shortly before his passing in February of 2002, Arizona outlaw country legend Waylon Jennings memorably schooled KNIX morning personalities Tim and Willy on the air. In answer to the duo's mock "We're not worthy!", Jennings replied, "Then why don't you play my music?" Jennings still doesn't get much play on KNIX, which continues to favor the mainstream country-western fare of Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, and Rascal Flatts. But Tim and Willy have grown a little sharper, able to poke sly fun at some of the dreck on the country playlists while keeping up the easy banter that nabbed the duo a 2005 ACM Personalities of the Year award. They carry Waylon's sting well, even if the only Jennings song likely to make their playlist this year will be a movie tie-in revival of his "Theme From The Dukes of Hazzard."
Nowhere is the west side's rough-and-tumble reputation more apparent than at the adult playground of sorts available at this tavern. Barflies from miles around amble into the Amber Inn for grown-up thrills, whether it's the arcade claw machine stocked with triple-X DVDs and other porno novelties; the virtual poker games over the bar's interactive NTN trivia system; raucous karaoke nights Thursday through Saturday; or the saucy pics of Marilyn Monroe adorning the walls. On any given evening, you're likely to find surly regulars downing dirt-cheap drinks like 50-cent Cherry Bombs (a gut-busting dose of Everclear 151, amaretto and Tabasco sauce), 75-cent Jägermeister or Pucker shots, and $1 domestic pints -- offered every night except for those featuring live entertainment -- or engaging in flirtatious conversations with a foxy female bartender (occasionally clad in a "Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck!" tee). But if your desire for dirty deeds isn't sated yet, there's a head shop just next door. Remember, sin is in!
For many Valley urbanites, the portions of Phoenix located south of Interstate 17 might as well be south of the border. Ask 'em for the hookup on any hip hangouts or cool clubs among the blighted badlands of junkyards, dollar stores, or industrial parks, and you'll usually get blank stares or suggestions of "Um . . . Applebee's?" instead. If you can brush aside these pathetic profferings and search around a bit, some gems can be found -- like the flavorful fiestas at Federico's. Whatever this grimy hole-in-the-wall nightspot lacks in style, it makes up for in character, with rancheros and duded-up Mexican cowboys working the cue ball on five different pool tables, congregating at secondhand tables covered with red cloths, or dancing with exotic-looking diva Latinas to styles like norteño and sweet cumbia spun by DJs on the weekends. It's standing room only come 11 p.m., so arrive early and prepare for a pat-down from one of the tough-looking security guards frisking for weapons at the door. If illegal intentions are your thingo, gringo, look for potential marks elsewhere.
The station may have long ago lost its Morning Mayor, Dave Pratt, but John Holmberg has proven a worthy successor to this FM-dial throne. His "Morning Sickness" reality program has helped build a loyal listener base rivaling Pratt's in just under four years. The music is still pure Ozzfest fare, with bands like Nine Inch Nails, Sevendust, Velvet Revolver, and Audioslave scoring heavy rotation. But with features like the "Mother's Day MILF Contest" and near-nightly airings of the syndicated "Loveline," the Big Red Radio continues to speak as loudly as ever to its party-hardy crowd.
By day, Valley jazz fans must rely on their iPods, or make do with the inferior smooth jazz served up on KYOT, until KJZZ switches over from its National Public Radio talk feed at 7 p.m. From then until 3 a.m., though, it's all smooth sailing, with the station's "acoustic jazz" format giving blessed airplay to Miles, Byrd, Coltrane, Dizzy and even a few lesser icons who must go by two names (Tommy Newsom, anyone?). On Sunday nights, the blues takes hold, with Bob Corritore's venerable "Those Lowdown Blues" bookended by Drew Verbis' "Blues and Beyond," dedicated to newer blues-influenced artists, and the Chicago-based program "Portraits in Blue" winding down the night. Cool.
Jennifer Goldberg
Approaching its 20th anniversary, Casey's is still the best place to hang if you're too cool for school -- namely, nearby Arizona State. Whether you're a hipster art student or a slacker fifth-year senior, chillin' at Casey's with a plate of crab cakes and a mug of Guinness (and blowing off that 3:15 class on a Tuesday afternoon) is a rite of passage. Don't get us wrong, Casey's ain't just for the college crowd. It's a second home for hundreds of "olde towne" Tempe residents who relish a simpler scene free of karaoke, silicone or gold lamé shirts. There's no better bar, or one with a more eclectic crowd -- from hippie chicks to frat boys, working stiffs to barflies -- to engage in conversation, either by bellying up to the cozy bar or lounging at picnic tables on the vast outdoor patio. So while regulars might bitch about the lack of parking, most will admit that after a night (or a lazy afternoon) at Casey Moore's, that lovely citation courtesy of the City of Tempe is almost worth it.
Operated out of local sci-fi writer Michael Mennenga's crowded home office in northeast Phoenix, "Wingin' It!" is a freewheeling weekly gab fest hosted by Mennenga and his pal, Web designer and practicing herbalist Evo Terra. Ostensibly a show dedicated to science fiction and fantasy books, "Wingin' It!" takes off on any number of geeky tangents, often rambling about podcasting itself, which has narrowed from an anyone-can-do-it field to one where only the strongest personalities thrive -- much like regular radio, only with more freedom and fewer commercials. For Mennenga, who until recently co-hosted a similar show on talk-radio KFYI-AM 550, and Terra, author of an upcoming book called Podcasting for Dummies, this is a dream gig -- one they're happy to share with local podcast geeks everywhere.
Turns out that drunks and dickheads aren't the only things that've been 86'ed from this roadhouse, as boredom and pretentiousness are equally verboten. Despite this club's hot spot in the shadows of Scottsdale, there's nary a posturing person to see or be seen among a diverse throng of pierced and tattooed patrons, trendy college kids, working stiffs from the General Dynamics plant across the street, and others who congregate here. In addition to all the people-watching, amusement can be found via an array of amateur comedians who pack their gags into one side of the club for yuk-filled shows throughout the week, while DJs, local bands, and a cast of spunky/funky/punky barkeeps and wait staff offer diversion on the other. Besides, when's the last time you were in a bar that's lit by candlelight (other than during the last blackout)?
A thought struck us the other day as we sipped a rum and Coke while maxing and relaxing inside this, our newest favorite watering hole: This place is definitely chill. Maybe it's all the fans and vents blasting freezy freshness throughout this darkened shelter from the sun, or perhaps it's the refreshing specialty drinks like the Blue Lagoon (a breezy blend of vodka, curaçao and pineapple juice), imbibed by all the wild regulars who slide on in during the cool-as-ice Latin Night Thursdays, with DJs spinning salsa, merengue, reggaeton, and American oldies. It's also pretty groovalicious that the owners keep things spic-and-span here, reminding their staff (via a Magic Markered sign over the register) to refrain from eating sunflower seeds at the bar and to "Clean, clean, all ways [sic] clean." We don't care if they can't spell here. We love 'em anyway.

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