Final Four Fans: A Field Guide to the Real Phoenix

Come to Phoenix for the basketball, stay for the amazing Mexican food, like these beauties at Tacos Chiwas.
Come to Phoenix for the basketball, stay for the amazing Mexican food, like these beauties at Tacos Chiwas. Jackie Mercandetti

To the untrained eye, Phoenix is parched.

We’re not just talking about the dry heat. Strip malls and chain restaurants, empty lots, cookie cutter little-pink-houses-for-you-and-me. Hell on earth, yes?


This city is downright cosmopolitan, damn it. You’ve just got to know where to look.

And we’re going to tell you where to look.

We’ve got everything from top-notch sushi (Hana) to the country’s best pizza (Pizzeria Bianco — pro tip, hit the Town and Country location to avoid long lines) and farm-to-table that rivals anyplace else — Ocotillo in Phoenix, FnB in Scottsdale (they also have an amazing selection and knowledge of Arizona wines), and Café Bink in Carefree. Other cities have chicken and waffles; Phoenix has Welcome Chicken + Donuts, with spicy Korean sauce for the chicken and doughnut flavors like key lime and matcha blood orange.

But you’ve come to the American Southwest — almost to the Mexican border, for that matter — and you’re going to want to start with a Sonoran Hot Dog. Wrapped in bacon and dressed with mayo (among other condiments), the best version of this treat is sold late at night off mobile carts. We recommend the Sonoran dog from El Caprichoso. (They’ve got four locations but no website, so call for details: 602-561-3723.)

Come to Phoenix for the basketball, stay for the amazing Mexican food, like these beauties at Tacos Chiwas. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
Come to Phoenix for the basketball, stay for the amazing Mexican food, like these beauties at Tacos Chiwas.
Jackie Mercandetti

Craving more Mexican food? We’re on it. Legend has it that the chimichanga originated at Macayo’s, a Phoenix-based chain. (For the record, folks from Tucson dispute this, but that’s a story for another day.) Locals sneer at any version of the chimi, but really, how can you go wrong with a deep-fried burrito? Or you can head to Tacos Chiwas for the lengua tacos the locals rave about. Lengua means beef tongue, but don’t worry, they’ve got plain old pollo (chicken), too. And if you want a sit-down meal and an unforgettable experience, you can head to any of Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s restaurants, from her original Barrio Café (check out the murals along 16th Street, a.k.a. Calle 16, inspired by anti-immigration efforts here that predate Trump) to Esparza’s newest spot, the snazzy Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva in the Grand Avenue arts district. Either way, don’t skip the tableside guacamole.

Now, you’re going to need a drink. Chef Silvana’s got tequila covered (her restaurants feature amazing collections of the hard stuff, as well as Mexican wines) but if you’re looking for a beer, head to Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. in Gilbert, where local ingredients like Sonoran wheat and grapefruit make their way into beer that’s won accolades around the world.

Looking for nightlife? The cheesy guide books will send you to Tempe’s Mill Avenue or Old Town Scottsdale, but we prefer downtown Phoenix. Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour has one of the most innovative cocktail programs in town (and one of the most addictive snacks, Hurricane Popcorn — hot, buttery corn tossed with garlic, sesame, a Japanese spice called shichimi togarashi, and spicy rice crackers).

Crescent Ballroom and Valley Bar both offer live music and creative cocktails/bar food, along with cool digs (check out the Rose Room at Valley Bar, named for the late and fabulously beehived former governor Rose Mofford, and the mobile over the bar that tells the story of one of Phoenix’s most infamous crimes).

Around the corner from Valley Bar, the newest location of the cult favorite Cornish Pasty Co. offers three floors and many dough-wrapped options for late night noshing.

After a night of partying, you’re going to need caffeine. As with any metropolis, there’s a Starbucks on pretty much every corner here, but Phoenix has a terrific local coffee scene as well. LUX Coffeebar is a hipster haven not far from downtown — with a DJ, pastries, and a full bar alongside the coffee. You can’t go wrong with Cartel Coffee Lab, which has locations all over the Valley (including at the airport). For a truly unique coffee experience, head to Tres Leches Café near Grand Avenue, where the drinks are made with the shop’s signature tres leches cream. A house favorite is the Café Mexicano, a latte made with the Abuela brand chocolate Mexicano (602-253-4925, no website).

Now, you’re ready for the day. Feeling outdoorsy? The favorite hike in these parts is the Echo Canyon trail at Camelback Mountain, but we’ll warn you that it’s not for the faint-footed. (And even the fittest trekker should bring plenty of water on an allegedly cool day.)

Don’t want to move? No judgment here. You’ll find beautiful spots to soak it in from bar/restaurant patios including Lon’s at the Hermosa Inn, T. Cook’s at the Royal Palms and El Chorro (, and don’t miss the sticky buns!). Or try hanging poolside at the Camelback Inn, where you don’t have to be a guest to partake of services at our all-time favorite spa; the Desert Nectar Honey Wrap is a must in this dry air. Want to check out the city’s flora and fauna from a paved trail? Try the Desert Botanical Garden, which features a gorgeous collection of cactus and a lovely gift shop.

Speaking of shopping, metro Phoenix is all about the mall. The very best specimens are the indoor Scottsdale Fashion Square and outdoor Biltmore Fashion Park, but there are plenty of indie shopping options, as well. The northwest corner of Central Avenue and Camelback Road is busting with shops — try Medlock Plaza, which includes Stinkweeds Records, the place to learn about local music and where to hear it. Frances is our go-to boutique for jewelry, accessories, and men’s/women’s clothing, but our favorite part of the little shop is the corner devoted to Arizona-oriented gifts (think everything from super-cute tees and stickers to vintage cactus-stamped glassware).

Want a permanent souvenir from your trip to Phoenix? Halo Precision Piercing can make that happen.

Wander west to Third Avenue and Camelback Road to check out the Newton, a complex that includes a new outpost of the city’s beloved independent bookstore, Changing Hands. This location includes First Draft, a coffee/beer/wine bar.

Enough about books and wine. You’re here in the wild west and you want to party. We’ve got that covered — er, make that uncovered. For a high-end strip club experience, try Christie’s Cabaret. For a dive, stick to Bandaids.

Feeling lucky? Who needs Vegas. Metro Phoenix is practically surrounded by casinos. One of our favorites is Talking Stick Resort and Casino, just over the border from Scottsdale. And if you want to give it your best shot, we can help there, too. Try Shooter’s World for a basic indoor firing range experience, or go glam at the Scottsdale Gun Club.

After that, you can quite literally ride off into the sunset with a guided desert tour on horseback from Ponderosa Stables.

If it all sounds like too much effort, just stick to the tequila. Like we said, we’re not judging.

You look thirsty.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at