Best Of :: Shopping & Services
In recent years, developers by the dozen have sunk serious sums into Mill Avenue and downtown Tempe with the hope that ASU kids and other hipsters will spend their hours and (more importantly) their dollars at its ultra-corporate chain stores, restaurants, and nightspots.
Too bad for them that the gnarliest place around these parts ain't even on Mill Avenue at all, but rather an unpretentious strip mall at Ash Avenue and University Drive.
This countercultural complex of cool boasts an array of independently owned alt-friendly business offering satisfaction for all your senses. Pick up the latest issues of X-Men and Spider-Man at Ash Avenue Comics & Books, followed by a search through the bins of Eastside Records for used vinyl, or a hunt for secondhand chic at the Buffalo Exchange. If you're hungry, Otto's Pizza has plenty of fresh slices and subs for noshing, and El Pollo Supremo serves up inexpensive dishes of delicious mesquite charbroiled chicken and sirloin strips with warm corn tortillas. Wet Paint Art Supply has plenty of pigment for artistic types, while the Headquarters has all your... er, tobacco-smoking supplies, HTC has a piercing studio on the premises, and Cowtown Skateboard features equipment fit for tricking.
To quote Wet Paint owner Jesika Jordan, "Fuck Mill Avenue, Ash Avenue's where it's at." Word.
We've been shopping at ABC Baking for years, and have yet to walk in the place and not have our deepest wish fulfilled and we have some odd wishes, including a need for pink bakery boxes in assorted sizes, sugar violets, and tiny plastic ballerinas that dance on the tops of cupcakes. If you're a serious baker, you're in luck these folks know what they're doing, and will provide you with all the hard-core tools of the trade, from pastry tubes to cake pans in shapes you never imagined. This year, we had a special desire for sprinkles (see our cover) and we knew right where to go. ABC has an entire section devoted to nothing but both the nonpareil and sugar varieties, in every hue imaginable. As you noticed, we chose classic rainbow.
This candy company doesn't sell prickly pear jellies or candy rocks. (Thank goodness have you ever tried to eat a candy rock?) They're much more creative than that. Instead, you can order small bags of treats, including Arizona Great Fruits (hard candies in citrus flavors), Margaritas on the Rocks (flavored like tequila, lime, and salt) and Hot Chocolate (again, hard candy, flavored with New Mexico chile, chocolate, and vanilla). Our personal favorites are the Fortune Tamales, cinnamon candies wrapped like tamales, including "spicy sayings" in Spanish and English. All clever twists on old favorites, but not too icky sweet. Yummy!
Finally a place where we can let our chocolate freak flags fly, and nobody will give us a funny look. On the contrary, it's de rigueur to gush about cacao confections here, and the more exotic, the better. The proprietors are so enthusiastic that they're like gourmet chocolate cheerleaders. How about the marzipan filled with rum and spiced poached black mission figs, dipped in chocolate, and encrusted with crushed almonds? It's divine. Dark chocolate filled with caramel and sprinkled with pink sea salt? Exquisite. Or the lavender and peppercorn-infused dark chocolate ganache with candied violet petals? Totally freakin' mind-blowing. (Okay, that last one is our description, not theirs.) With about 270 individual pieces of chocolate from more than a dozen artisan chocolatiers plus the biggest selection of fancy chocolate bars we've ever seen this bonbon-sized boutique is just the place to go to break out of your Hershey's shell.
Chocoholics, take note: The shop just moved from Scottsdale to Phoenix, where it reopens in early October.
There are lots of ways to satisfy your craving for sweet/salty (and don't act like you don't know what we're talking about), but our favorite is with a caramel-dipped, chocolate-covered pretzel rod from Granny's. We've spotted Granny's rods at Starbucks in Seattle and closer to home, at MADE art boutique and at Granny's quaint HQ in Gilbert where, if you're particularly kind to the owners, you might just get a behind-the-scenes tour. We've seen the vat they heat that caramel in, and let's just say we wouldn't be surprised if lives have been lost. We're here to tell you, it's well worth the sacrifice.
Falling for the gelato at Arlecchino is kind of like finding religion.
At first, you try to be rational. (There are new gelato places cropping up all over town. I can find gelato a lot closer to home.)
Then, some healthy skepticism kicks in. (What's all the fuss? How can it really be that good?)
Pretty soon, you admit that you're curious. (Man, my friends won't shut up about Arlecchino. I think I need to try it.)
You educate yourself. (Wow. Arlecchino's owner trained with a gelato master in Italy, and he makes every pan of gelato from scratch...) Next, you do some soul-searching. (Chocolate, pistachio, or strawberry?
Finally, you take a leap of faith, and dig in. Within a bite or two, the potent flavors and dense, creamy texture overwhelm your taste buds. You've never tasted gelato this good anywhere, ever. It's so delicious, it's almost hard to explain the sensation. Like fireworks, or ecstasy, or... (Heaven!)
Who doesn't love a good fad? C'mon, admit it, you're hot for gelato. And cupcakes. And those foodie places popping up all over town, promising high-end gourmet but really winding up as high-end cafeterias. Still, you gotta try it, and that's how we felt about the yogurt at Seven Sisters.
A friend we trust to the ends of the earth (as far as food and fashion are concerned, at least) told us about this place, which serves the closest thing to Pinkberry yogurt this side of Santa Monica. What? You haven't heard of Pinkberry? Where have you been, darling? Apparently, frozen yogurt that sweet, allegedly low/no-fat staple of the '80s is alive and well and thriving in L.A., in the form of a chain that takes a Korean brand of frozen yogurt and tops it with piles of fresh fruit.
When our friend told us Seven Sisters was selling a competing Korean brand (Red Mango), we got in the car and drove for-ever to get us some. And let us tell you, it's worth it, sister. This is not your high school pal's yogurt. It's tangy and sweet, with the flavor of really good plain yogurt. (They were out of the green tea variety the day we visited.) And it's so thick we'd swear it was full-fat, but the lady behind the counter swears: "fat-free."
Seven Sisters also sells a variety of hand-dipped chocolates, including some yummy-looking chocolate-dipped Rice Krispies treats, but we weren't even tempted. Just give us a vat of that yogurt, and we'll die happy.
We no longer apologize for our need to eat dessert every day, now that we've discovered a place that bakes up the world's most responsible cookies. The Urban Cookies philosophy ("Our cookies are round, but our vision has four integral corners") says it all about this extraordinary, cookie-specific bakery, where the freshest, highest-quality ingredients are gathered from select purveyors who uphold the standards of owners Shaun and Brady Breese. The Breeses, who earlier this year moved their shop into slicker digs on Seventh Street, use 100 percent organic ingredients that are better for your health and for the environment. Our favorite? It's a toss-up between the Simple Urban, a subtle blend of bourbon vanilla and milk chocolate, and the Urban Trail, which combines roasted peanuts and brown rice crisps for a snap-crackle taste unlike any other cookie. We usually go for a half-dozen of each, and struggle to make them last 'til tomorrow.
Brownie purveyors come and go, but our favorite will always be the fairy tale of a company dreamed up by David Kravetz and Eileen Spitalny, two childhood pals who turned David's mom's brownie recipe into a booming business. We're not sure Mom thought to put espresso and cocoa nibs into her brownies, or "lively raspberry purée," but we're glad David and Eileen did, and we love reading the flavor descriptions on the Web site almost as much as we love eating the Fairytale Brownies we can pick up at AJ's or Duck and Decanter locations around town. You can also order them online or go directly to the bakery on Cotton Center Boulevard. Any way you get them, you won't be disappointed. The chocolate fix is in.
We confess. We cheated this year. A lot. It's hard to stay on the dietary straight and narrow when there's so much goodness to be had at Sweet Pea Bakery. From the signature rosemary shortbread cookie to the margarita tart with lime curd to the brownie chunk cookie and the chocolate brownie cupcake with white chocolate ganache, these people know how to get it baked.
Thankfully, Sweet Pea recently introduced a lunch menu, including healthy, seasonal salads (no matter what they're fixing, the owners make it fresh and natural) so we won't feel so guilty about that flourless chocolate cake for dessert. One s'mores tart and we promise, we're heading back to the gym.
Whenever we walk into Karsh's, we immediately think of Jerry Seinfeld. Partly because the place feels more Manhattan than Phoenix, but also because they have the best black-and-white cookies this side of NYC. (And if you don't remember that episode, you better start catching up on the ubiquitous Seinfeld reruns. That show's on more than Sex and the City.)
Ah, but we digress. This is all about the rugelach, the mondel bread, the doughy hamantaschen with thick, sweet poppyseed filling. Karsh's has it all, along with challah and bagels. The place is even kosher blessed-by-a-rabbi-kosher so you can indulge without Jewish guilt. The day we were there, we didn't notice chocolate babka, but oy vey, we're in Phoenix. You can't have everything.
Cathy's Rum Cake has been around for 30 years. That's a long time. Cathy was popular here before people had even heard of another woman who goes by her first name (we're talking about Martha, not Madonna), a woman who made that fondant icing so popular.
Now, we love the look of fondant, and there are some local cake purveyors who do it so well, they put M.S. to shame. But have you ever tried to bite into a hunk of the stuff? Gross. It tastes like grout. (Well, we imagine it does. We've never actually tasted construction supplies.)
Give us Cathy's cake any time. The frosting is whipped and sweet, and you don't have to get a shot of rum in the cake although we highly recommend it. (The amaretto version's not bad, either, and you teetotalers can get it alcohol-free.) Festooned with shimmery ribbons, we'd put Cathy's cakes up against Martha's any old day. Just let us eat cake!