Hot Salsa

In south Scottsdale, just below the swanky and ostentatious club scene, salsa lovers can find a truly great big-band experience.

Nestled in the Papago Plaza in the shadow of the larger and urban (Saturdays, anyway) CBNC nightclub, Victory Sports Grill is transformed from a restaurant and sports bar to a salsa dance club on weekend nights. Its walls are lined with mirrors that allow patrons to admire themselves -- and their nifty moves -- under a disco ball and other '70s-style lighting.

But the acts are doing a different kind of imitation. Thirteen-piece outfits like Fuerza Latina and Los Tremendos are offering the sounds of Latin orquestas of days past.

On a recent Saturday night, E.J. Rodriguez, a New York transplant, is doing what he can to help the up-and-coming Fuerza Latina. As the group's timbalero (or timbales player), the same role made famous by the mambo king himself, Tito Puente, the Nuyorican barks out encouraging instructions like a scout leader and follows with Puente-like shouts, "Yeah, that's what I'm talking about!" The group enthusiastically plays salsa, merengue, bachata and other Latin stylings to a large crowd, slightly older than what you'd normally catch at a Scottsdale club. Whether in groups or playing the field, the mostly Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican regulars make you feel more like you're in south Florida than south Scottsdale.

When he's not at Victory, or at his day job waiting tables at My Florist Cafe, Rodriguez plays around town with other Latin groups in need of a percussionist. "I've been here four months. In New York I was a professional [musician]; here I'm just trying to make connections."

Another guy making connections is Jose "Papi" Rosa. Yep, he really does go by that name and everyone at Victory seems to know it. "Everyone comes here to have a good time. It's like a family here," says the jovial Dominican who could double as a Wayans brother. He orders another Puerto Rican Flag (coconut and vanilla-flavored rums, cranberry and pineapple juices, topped with a cherry) from owner Efrain Diaz, who wants to lure salsa fans because of their celebrated propensity for tropical and high-priced cocktails.

Papi turns and says, "I have friends everywhere but I keep losing my drink!" At $6 a pop, Diaz certainly doesn't mind.

He keeps the drinks -- and the music -- coming.