The pang of utter discomfort that stabs my heart every time I pass 24th Street and Camelback Road is so palpable that I promise myself I will not eat any more cheese for the rest of the day.
But that bolt, I know, is not because of clogged arteries that resemble a grease trap at In-N-Out Burger, although it is the reason my left arm occasionally goes a wee bit numb. No, that strike of agony is because I am passing the graveyard of several of Phoenix’s most-missed and memorable eateries that now only exist in photos and memories.
It’s Caf' Casino that has left the biggest gap in the row of restaurants that used to reside there, followed by Ed Debevic’s (I know, a Chicago-based chain, but the most exciting place to be in the mid-'80s) and trailed by Tucchetti’s, the place where most of us spent the '90s eating flatbread pizza for the first time. Gone, all gone, now replaced by office buildings, a cellphone store and a Nordstrom Rack. Whoopee.
But those memories should serve as a reminder of what we do have left in this town that is genuinely Old Phoenix. You remember Old Phoenix: when Terry Goddard was our new hope and the Piestewa Freeway was a two-lane road that had a … well … rather derogatory name.
I miss Old Phoenix. I miss Mr. Mort’s, the Airport Food Court at MetroCenter, and Long Wong’s (the one on Mill Avenue, of course). But there are still a couple of holdouts left, and this is where I take my nieces and nephews when they come of age, and out-of-town guests when I can lure them to the city that I complain about constantly but I will always maintain is the best town to eat in.
Durant’s2611 North Central Avenue
The oldest, grandest staple of swanky restaurants that Phoenix has ever had is Durant's. Instead of closing one day, I hope they just dip the whole place in bronze. In a way, this place reminds me of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining; the waiters all look like the Lloyd the bartender, and it seems completely plausible that the time and space continuum could be broken and reach back into the '60s at any moment. The food is always terrific; I’ve never met anyone who has had a mediocre meal here. Steak and chops, but real fancy-like. But it’s the martinis, the big leatherette booths, and the flocked wallpaper that make it what it is, an old slice of Phoenix that used to have nothing but Cadillacs and Lincolns in the parking lot.
Rosita’s Place2310 East McDowell Road
I want to die here. I am serious. I want the very last thing I see to be a mouthful of Rosita’s magical refried beans heading toward my mouth before the curtain closes. The recipe is so secret, most of the family members don’t even know it. I know because I have tried to bribe them. Mary Lou and Sylvia now run their mother’s restaurant, serving the same mole (which is, in my opinion, the best you will ever find), the same enchiladas, the same menudo, and the same chimis that their mother began serving more than 50 years ago in the same exact place. Rosita’s never changes. They never try anything fancy, they never veer off course, and they never print new menus until it’s time to raise prices, which is about once a decade. The new menus feature a saucy, sexy Rosita on them, looking a little like Eva Mendes. Kind of awesome. If you’re in the know, you can get a Rosita’s calendar for the new year right around now. But you better go immediately; the ones with the hot Rosita and virgins on them go quickly. My cousin will be here for the holidays, and you can bet I’m not letting him go home without a new saucy Rosita calendar tucked under his arm. And refried beans in his belly.
The Chicago Hamburger Company3749 East Indian School Road
I’ll be honest. I didn’t find this place until I was in my late 20s, but it was an awakening I don’t regret. Sliders made before sliders became trendy and the “small plate” item of the decade. You don’t get a small plate at The Chicago Hamburger Company, you get a basket: a plastic, webbed basket lined with paper that catches the grease and the droppings once you begin to feast. These are not fancy sliders; you will not find the belly of any animal incorporated into it. No tomato jam, no crispy chicken skin, or aioli. Just meat, cheese, and basic offerings. If a slider is good, you don’t need anything more, and when you find a place that has made sliders the same way for what looks like a very long time, you have to trust. So try to find a parking space, then try to find a seat — and trust.
Rito’s907 North 14th Street
It’s true, a pigeon did its business on my head one afternoon while I was sitting outside under a tree eating the best mixed burro simply anywhere in the world. But Rito’s has now made it safe for all those who wander here; the tree has been chopped down and replaced by umbrellas. Not that many people have been shot there, and the neighborhood is improving dramatically every day, but you oughta know that the spot where you place your order used to be a living room, and that Rito’s started serving some of the best burritos and tacos you will ever experience in the house where the family lived. And, much like Rosita’s Place, it has stayed in the family, and the daughters run the business now in the same spot where they grew up.
Harvey’s Wineburger4812 North 16th Street
I’m not exactly sure how long Harvey’s Wineburger has actually stood on the same spot, but I know it’s at least since 1983, when I got my driver’s license, drove my car down there, and had a burger. And it was old then. The fare hasn’t changed, just great, standard burgers, tried and true, the kind that Wimpy would eat a dozen of. Who’s Wimpy? Google it. The place is open until 2 a.m., there’s a pool table and probably five decades of nicotine on the walls, but man. If people have been doing the same thing for at least 35 years, that’s called mastering an art. That’s a Ph.D in the restaurant business. You’ve passed it a million times, and it’s survived the mass gobbling of 16th Street that ate Coup de Tartes and gave us another apartment building. Let’s hope it survives until another generation get their driver’s licenses and find one of Phoenix’s culinary pioneers.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on January 6, 2017. It was updated on November 27, 2019.