Best Of :: Shopping & Services
Longtime Tempe residents still lament the "old Gold Bar," a bigger incarnation of this hidden East Valley gem that was shut down years ago. But these complainers are missing the point it wasn't the building that made Gold Bar the most comfortable coffee joint in Tempe, it's the atmosphere created by the mismatched furniture, the fiercely loyal regulars and the baristas who actually remember your name and your drink after only a few visits. At all hours of the day and night, almost every table is occupied by laptop computers (wireless Internet is free), and though busy, the shop is never distracting. This at-home vibe (not to mention the seriously strong coffee) makes this our favorite place to set up shop on days when we just have to play hooky from the office.
When we wanted to rent an Australian Jungle Carpet python, we knew where to go. Rich Ihle has been collecting, studying and breeding reptiles for more than 30 years, and he's happy to lend some of them out, for a fee and with supervision, for which we're thankful. We're not sure we want a python all our own (who knew they peed!), so we'll stick to the rental option, thanks to Reptile Adventures.
To be honest, we thought hydroponics was just a method to grow better dope plants inside your closet. That was before we stepped foot in Tempe's Sea of Green. Turns out it's actually a real science, dude. Who knew? Contrary to popular belief, hydroponics isn't about growing a plant in water. Heck, we all did that as kids with pineapples and potatoes, so who would need fancy supplies for that? Most hydroponic gardens are cultivated in a stiff substrate, like floral foam or Perlite, soaked with water and placed under a UV light. Sea of Green offers everything you need to set up an indoor hydroponics garden. There are seeds, pots, herbs and full kit systems with catchy names like Ebb & Flow. The bulk of the place's business is mail order, but hey, there are probably just a lot of model citizens out there growing organic plants. Yeah, that's it. Big, leafy, green, er, vegetables.
You'd think it would be easy to find good desert plants in the actual desert. Think again. We scoured nurseries (limited selection), souvenir stops (tacky) and gardens (pricey) before stumbling upon this little gem of a shop hidden in Old Town Scottsdale. Cactus Hut proprietor Jeffrey Shaw has been quietly importing and grooming desert plants for 30 years. His tiny storefront has a stellar variety of unusual succulents and cacti, from the spiny echinocactus, also called a barrel cactus, to the more welcoming hildiwinteria with its fuzzy yellow coat. Popular gifts include magnets with miniature live specimens and prepackaged cactus kits ranging from $7.95 to $26.95. Shipping service is available on most items. It's hard to kill a cactus, but don't get too cocky. Occasionally, a customer will come back after a few days with a dead aloe, says Shaw, wondering how that could have happened when it was watered faithfully twice a day.
We're cheating a little, because the truth is that High Spirits Prickly Pear Flavored Vodka is actually brewed in Flagstaff, at the Mogollon Brewing Company. Yeah, we know, Valley sprawl being what it is, Flag is practically north Phoenix . . . Maybe by next year. In any case, we feel justified in giving this vodka a Best of Phoenix not only because it's so good, but because when we finally did locate it, it was in a Bashas' in Ahwatukee, not at the brewery in Flagstaff. (You can't buy it at the Mogollon Brewery. We know that because we drove all the way to Flagstaff, walked into the brewery with a toddler in tow and asked to buy it. They can't sell it by the bottle, the kind bartender explained, because it's brewed on site. Whatever. We were annoyed, but glad no one commented on the child.) In any case, you can find High Spirits Prickly Pear Flavored Vodka at your local Bashas' here in the Valley, if it's not sold out, and it might well be because although it costs almost $30 a bottle, this stuff is gooood! We sipped it straight (warm, even, we were that eager to try it), but we prefer it over ice, or, as a friend suggested, it might go well over ice cream. We can't think of a better use for a prickly pear.
All year long, we keep a folder full of ideas for Best of Phoenix awards menus, newspaper clippings, notes scribbled on cocktail napkins. This year, that folder also contains a bar of soap. Yes, it makes the folder a little bulky, but we've found it's not enough to keep a bar of Wild Women Soaps prickly pear on the bathroom counter we like to keep it by the computer, and sniff it often. It smells that good. If you want your own bar to keep by the computer (and maybe one for the sink, too), you can buy it at the gift shop at the Desert Botanical Garden, or shop online.
From giant pythons to tiny lizards, Arizona Reptile Center has everything you need to transform your living room into a world-class reptilian display. The friendly and knowledgeable staffers are quick to answer questions, whether you're an expert herpetologist or a novice who's a bit terrified about feeding a dead rat to your pet boa. The store has quietly developed a rabid and devoted cadre of customers who rave about the joint on the Web. "I never want to leave when I go there," says one snake snuggler. "This is absolutely one of the best, cleanest, and friendliest places I've ever been to regarding snakes or lizards," raves another.
It's the national chain with the huge purple-and-green logo. Accept no substitutes! Unlike most other soi-disant "dollar" stores, everything here is 99 cents unless it's two, three, or four for 99 cents. Six big ounces of posh Yardley shower gel. Brilliant blue, red, or green cotton tea towels embroidered with adorable vegetables. Everything for the table: candles, vases, melamine superhero plates, classy Indonesian barware. A gamut of groceries, from fresh produce to snacks of the world to rarities like instant espresso powder. Live plants, pots and soil. (Experience indicates an 80 percent survival rate for 99 Only's flora, and that's hard to beat.) Scarves and ponchos and scrunchies, oh my! Fill a stocking or a basket. Fill a gift bag (the bags are two for 99 cents). And never buy Halloween candy in a "regular" store again, not when name-brand snack-size bars are 10 for wait for it 99 cents.
We weren't sure there was any better place than several of our favorite local dollar stores to buy religious accouterments, until we wandered into The Autom Company on Seventh Street one recent afternoon. We'll never get back the two hours we spent browsing there, but that's more than okay, since we now own a Saint Benedict Home Protection Kit ("For those looking for protection from the forces of darkness and temptation"), an Adoration of the Magi Tea Light Holder (because, hey, where else are you going to put your tea lights?), and a luminous Infant of Prague nightlight that we like to think is keeping St. Lucifer at bay. Prayer Card collectors and fans of plastic glow-in-the-dark rosaries will, as we did, need a good chunk of time to spend in this amazing shop that stocks everything you need to be a good Catholic.
Looking for a "hooker-tight" black vinyl mini-skirt? Need a leather bustier with lots of zippers? Can't find a place that sells quality latex body paint? Stop in at Smokin' Lingerie, and you'll find every kinky thing you need for the next fetish ball or flash bash. At 12,000 square feet, Smokin' Lingerie has room for a massive selection of sexual stimulants, and the inventory includes everything from neon g-strings and knee-high boots to studded leather face masks and rubber dresses. The racks contain a fair amount of teddies and vinyl wear in larger sizes, too, so there are plenty of sexy getups for the more voluptuous gals. Patrons can also peruse the porn selection, which contains thousands of titles on both DVD and VHS. If you're feeling really adventurous, you can try out the bondage swing, located near the dressing rooms.
Phoenix has more than its share of drive-through liquor stores, but Melrose Liquors stands out for a couple of reasons: one, the building is situated between two popular lesbian nightclubs, zGirl Club (formerly Misty's) and E-Lounge; and two, the building is triangular and painted hot pink, fitting for a building situated on a strip of Seventh Avenue that's full of gay-owned/friendly businesses but happy to serve all. The selection inside the store is huge and prices are reasonable, making it a perfect stop for take-home nightcaps after a night of club hopping. Best of all, this drive-through liquor store isn't located in a strip mall it stands alone in a big vacant lot, so there's plenty of room to maneuver around late-night traffic once you've grabbed your 40-ounce and cigarettes from the window clerk.
That little clay or clear glass "tobacco pipe" might hit in a pinch, but pull it out at a party, and people will look at you cross-eyed for all the wrong reasons. If you really want to impress your fellow smokers, hook yourself up with a custom pipe from It's All Goodz. The shop presses and blows its own glass pipes in a room right there in the store, and patrons can watch the pipesmiths in action through huge windows. The shop's craftsmen can make anything you want whether it's a pink pipe with a bowl shaped like a vagina, or a huge steamroller pipe made out of chameleon glass that changes colors as you smoke it. And if you can't decide whether you want a green and gold paisley pipe with ornate spiders and cobwebs down the sides or a pipe shaped like one of those Grateful Dead dancing bears, you can always pick one of the ready-made originals off the shelves. In addition to its own creations, the shop carries a huge selection of the highest quality tobacco pipes, water pipes, and hookahs, in addition to other accouterments like ashtrays, pipe bags, and lighters. Very impressive!