Chow Bella

You Still Can't Find Great Mexican Food in Downtown Phoenix, and Other Thoughts on the State of Downtown Dining

With a spate of new openings in downtown Phoenix this season, including The Park and Chico Malo — not to mention the multimillion-dollar development projects that are slowly but surely transforming the downtown skyline — now seems like a pretty good time to consider the state of downtown Phoenix dining.

When I think about downtown Phoenix — where we are going and where we have been — my memory always turns to a Sunday evening sometime in the late 1990s, or maybe the early aughts, when I was in downtown Phoenix and the only food spot I could find open for business within comfortable walking distance was a Subway sandwich shop.

So, things have definitely improved. But change, the kind of change that could turn downtown Phoenix into one of the city's top dining districts, has been slow to come. Downtown Phoenix, especially the core business and entertainment district centered around Central Avenue and Washington Street, has long been notorious for going dark after business hours. If you've lived here long enough, you've probably suffered through the awkward experience of shuttling out-of-towners around the Valley, showing them the sights, and ending up somehow in downtown Phoenix. Someone, no doubt the least diplomatic person in your group, will inevitably take a look around and sort of sneer at the surroundings.

"But where are all the people?" is a question I've heard more than once.

Downtown is still full of empty lots tied up in leases and other red tape. And it's certainly not a cheap place to set up shop. There is some hope in the simple fact that more people than ever see the value in having a strong, vibrant downtown. That has not always been the case in Phoenix history.

Plenty of people already live in downtown Phoenix, and it seems safe to say that more are coming. Downtown Phoenix is currently experiencing a building boom — call it a comeback — with more condos, apartments, and office space projected to go up in the next few years than there have been in the past three decades. A vibrant downtown scene has never seemed more possible, even if it's come decades too late to save some of downtown's most beautiful historic buildings, like the long-gone Fox Theater.

As downtown has become more livable and walkable, the food and drink options have expanded beyond lunch-only sandwich shops and cafes, hotel restaurants, and chain outposts. Spots like Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour, for example, have helped shape downtown into a more destination-worthy district, and downtown is home to arguably two of the city's best restaurants: Nobuo at Teeter House and Pizzeria Bianco. In the past year, newer and more interesting spots have been added, including Nook Kitchen and a downtown location of Cornish Pasty Co.

But visitors staying in the central business district are still more likely to stumble into chains like Hard Rock Cafe, and fast-casual lunch spots like Potbelly Sandwich Shop, Chipotle,  Einstein Bros. Bagels, and their ilk. The Arizona Center, especially, has been a sinkhole of uninspired dining for years (Hooters, anyone?). The center is currently undergoing a $25 million renovation that is expected to bring a new boutique hotel and multifamily housing to downtown, but it's still unclear what, if any, new dining options the project will bring to the area.

Visitors looking for more interesting fare in the general vicinity of downtown Phoenix have to do some research, and often end up traveling to nearby Roosevelt Row, to neighborhood spots like Cibo, SoSoBa, Forno 301, and other area highlights.

Just east of downtown, there's Welcome Diner, and the Garfield neighborhood promises to get even more interesting with the second coming of Gallo Blanco Cafe this summer. Also coming this summer is Aaron Chamberlin and chef Suny Santana's new Mexican spot, Taco Chelo, which will hopefully bring a much-needed infusion of great tacos to downtown.

If we're talking the core downtown business district, though, the area has not yet earned a reputation as a thriving food and drink district. More density in the area would help, the kind that encourages walking and exploration, with more spaces for smaller, leaner independents to get a shot at downtown. Block 32, a massive mixed-use development that's projected to bring office space, residential units, and (finally) a full-service grocery store to downtown Phoenix by 2019, just broke ground last week. But it's not clear yet whether that project will inject any new life into downtown dining.

What could a more vibrant downtown scene look like? It would have to include more late-night dining options, not just a handful of spots scattered here and there, which visitors are only likely to discover via a Google search. We deserve the option to stuff our faces at 1:30 a.m. with Korean barbecue in downtown Phoenix. We deserve more late-night coffee shops and greasy spoons, too, where we can drink coffee and demolish carb-heavy plates with fellow night owls, sleep-deprived students, and business travelers.

Good Mexican food often feels like a birthright in Phoenix, so it seems sort of shameful that we don't have more decent taquerias and sit-down options in downtown proper. More sidewalk cafes and independent bistros, more rooftop spots, a pastry destination where the window-shopping is more enticing than anything at the Biltmore Fashion Park — those would all be wonderful. And a few more bars where the entertainment comes from the cocktail menu, the people-watching, the live musicians, and not just the deadening glow of TV screens.

And we desperately need at least one pedestrian-only commercial area, a hallmark of any good big city, a space to linger, eat, shop, and feel like you're a part of something. We need, in other words, more reasons to hang out in downtown Phoenix that don't involve sports, concerts, conventions, or a jury summons. Food and drink has the power and potential to shape communities as much as anything else.

Some of the things on this wish list are pie-in-the-sky, and others are more realistic. But like it or not, more people are coming to downtown. More people than ever will soon pay a premium to live and work there, and they will probably want more than burgers and sandwiches in their neighborhood.
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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.