Travel

Phoenix Rising – How I discovered taco, coffee, and craft beer perfection in the hottest place I’ve ever been

If Phoenix is meant to rise like the legendary bird from the ash, it will probably be because of the heat there. On my first visit to the surprisingly massive southwest city for work, the temperature never dropped below 100 degrees and during the afternoon it peaked at nearly 115 degrees. Thankfully, the city provides numerous places to get out of the sun and cool down with some food and drink.

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Phoenix surprised me with how large it is and how fast it’s growing. It’s actually one of the fastest growing cities in the country and is a surprising fifth on the largest cities in the country. The colleges certainly help, but I suspect a centralization of jobs and trendy restaurants are part of that growth. As a city built in the desert, there’s no lack of space, so the city has continuously expanded out, rather than up. With the exception of a few tall office and residential buildings downtown, much of the city is flat and sprawling, making cars the best way to get around.

I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown, right near the baseball stadium and part of the university’s campus, though found that because of this sprawl, the downtown was actually fairly quiet most days and especially at night when all the office workers departed. My hotel meant a quick and easy walk around much of the city, though I quickly learned to bring a considerable amount of water with me. The hotel is a converted bank building, so the lobby has some incredible Art Deco styling and feels quite regal. The rooms were comfortable and very quiet, and most importantly the air conditioning worked well in the high heat.

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I had expectations of Phoenix being more of a country music focused place than it turned out to be. I figured in the Southwest I’d see tons of cowboy hats and find live country music in bars. I began my search where it seemed obvious, Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row in Old Town Scottsdale. Phoenix is actually made up of several overlapping cities that have grown into each other including Glendale, Tempe, and Scottsdale, and the cool place to hang out with all the good restaurants and bars is apparently there. Unfortunately, I went in the middle of the day on a Sunday, so there really wasn’t much happening. No live music. No dancing on the bar. They weren’t even playing country music, but some indie rock and showing American Ninja Warrior on a projector screen. Apparently Phoenix wasn’t the country music mecca I thought it might be.

If the country music scene disappointed, the craft brewing scene completely made up for it. I discovered numerous great breweries and found some local craft beer just about everywhere I turned in Phoenix. Better still, many combined great food and stellar outdoor spaces. These often had nice shaded areas and water misters to combat the desert heat and sun. None were better than OHSO Brewery, just outside downtown Scottsdale. A huge back patio was completely shaded – except for a two inch square where the sun got through and charred a small part of my arm before I realized – by colorful cloth shades and misters. I was able to watch some hockey too on the big screens while I enjoyed a huge selection of their beer. As silly as it sounds, I actually really enjoyed their ice pop flavored brew, which put me in mind of sitting poolside as a kid and definitely made me feel even cooler.

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Another excellent outside area was at the simple but effectively named Cold Beers and Burgers. I actually stumbled upon it when another brewery nearby was closed, spotting the large patio with a surprising number of people outside from across the street. The bar is huge with a ton of craft beer on tap including several local Phoenix and a few Arizona breweries represented. Across much of Phoenix, San Diego craft breweries dominate the tap lists, and they do here as well, but it’s nice to see some more local options too. I didn’t try the other half of the name, the burgers, but what I saw coming out looked quite good.

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For more of a traditional brewery, I went to check out Goldwater Brewing, also in Scottsdale. While there is a small outside part with a few chairs, it’s mostly inside and feels like most microbreweries with a bar and all the brewing equipment right on display. The staff knows their beer, probably because they’re involved in the brewing process as well. I would have loved to continue my day of sipping craft beer outside, but it was getting even hotter and the stronger IPA I picked started to make me sleepy.

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Back in town, or at least just a bit north of Downtown Phoenix and close enough to walk from my hotel and end up with an only slightly drenched back, Mother Bunch Brewing also provided a nice respite with a wide selection of beer with some unique flavors. Again, there was no outside area, but by that point I was fine with it and just wanted to sip a beer without it all sweating out. The massive circular bar did encourage conversation and I actually overheard some useful information about both the beer and some recommendations for other spots to visit.

Just up the street, Arizona wilderness Beer Hall made for the perfect spot as the sun began to set. The huge outdoor beer garden with picnic tables, a fire pit, Adirondack chairs, and corn hole is great for enjoying a nice day and sharing a day with a group of friends. They have a good selection of beer from their own brewery, but also a few partners so there is something for nearly every taste. If I had to choose a single spot to stay put outside for the day, it’d definitely be here.

Angel’s Trumpet Ale House is also nearby and has a similar large outdoor area with some shade and misters and even some Adirondack chairs too. There are a huge number and variety of craft brews on tap on a frequently changing blackboard. Following the summer desert theme, I tried out a prickly pear IPA which had a nice tartness to balance the hops. They were also smoking some amazing smelling turkey and brisket, so after smelling it for a few minutes I decided I needed to try out the brisket tacos. They did not disappoint. Never turn down smoked brisket, even if Phoenix doesn’t embrace other parts of being in the south like country music.

My final stop for a drink was at Lost Leaf Tavern. This spot did actually feel like something from Austin perhaps, like one of the popular house-turned bars where inside is a bar with a nice craft beer menu on draft and outside is an expansive front yard patio. This was actually the only place I heard any live music, though unfortunately it was jazz. At least the beer from around Arizona and Utah made up for that.

As much as it may seem that way, my entire trip to Phoenix wasn’t just to try out the beer. I also insisted on trying out tacos for just about every meal while there. I figured this close to Mexico, they’d be pretty darn good and unlike the music, actually got this right. I began my journey at Barrio Queen, an authentic northern Mexican style restaurant with killer margaritas and tequila and mescal cocktails. The tacos were probably the best I had in Phoenix thanks to some awesome tortillas and incredibly flavorful toppings like pork and some spicy fish. I also loved the location right along the canal and the outside area where the spicy mescal, tacos, and the sun made it hard to determine the exact cause of a profuse sweat.

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I also found some incredible authentic tacos at Gallo Blanco, a mission-style joint which was packed for dinner, but thankfully had some room at the bar where I could pair up their choice tacos with a Sierra Nevada beer, a surprisingly complementary pairing. While they didn’t have an outside or any live TV to entertain me, I did actually find the looping skateboarding videos different and began getting into it the further I got into my tacos and beer.

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Another taco spot that certainly makes an impression is Taco Guild. Located inside a converted church, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the atmosphere. Thankfully, they make pretty good tacos too so the journey out to the more residential part of town is worth it. I even loved the chips, salsa, and guac thanks to a nice variety of spice levels. Of course there were plenty of Phoenix based beers to go with the tacos. I wouldn’t necessarily call it the Vatican of tacos, but with some solid options, it’s at least worth a pilgrimage.

On the other end of the spectrum, Willy’s Taco Joint is something you’d expect to find in Cancun perhaps. A focus on Margaritas doesn’t dispel the notion and the taco varieties are pretty wild as well. I suppose it makes sense given the need to attract attention in a spot right near Phoenix’s baseball stadium. The large salsa and topping bar also provides some additional spice and customization options. Thankfully the tacos are pretty solid even for the touristy digs, though not as authentic or quite up to the standard set by the other taco spots. It’s still a good option for something a bit different or convenient if near the stadium.

Phoenix isn’t Columbia, Brazil, or even Seattle, but the coffee culture is evolving and growing with the population. At spots like Lola Coffee, City Market, and Cartel Coffee, I found awesome espresso and refreshing cold brews. Cartel stood out with the best coffee and a recognizable brand on the West Coast, as well as having some pretty good breakfast bites. All were good though and helped get through long hot days in town.

Phoenix turned out to be less southern than I expected, but eating and drinking around the city introduced me to a ton of options this quickly growing city has. Phoenix is poised to break out in a big way soon and it’s well prepared with a ton of great options for food and craft beer. Even with the heat in the triple digits, there were plenty of ways to cool down with great shaded outdoor spots and cool drinks. I probably never would have imagined going to Phoenix for travel before, but after visiting and experiencing the city, I’d definitely consider going back.