Few cities are as misunderstood as Phoenix: It’s hot and dry, but the Sonoran Desert with its monsoon rains and 3,000 plant species teems with life and natural wonders. It’s true that people retire and golf here, but others sip barrel-aged gose and dip out of work for buzzy burger pop-ups and scallop aguachile. Because of these contradictions and the many talented people this place attracts, Phoenix is an eye-opening city to eat in right now.
Phoenix has changed rapidly over the years. In 1950, the city’s 17 square miles supported 107,000 people. Today, Phoenix’s 517 square miles support 1.6 million. Lately, this spirit of evolution has manifested downtown, which has seen wild growth in the past five years. Anchored by the crane-flecked strip of Roosevelt Row and its Sonoran taqueria (Taco Boys), foraging-focused brewery (Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company), and outdoor food hall (The Churchill), the downtown scene gets bigger and better each month.
Some of this fast change has brought challenges. Longtime locals have been priced out of their neighborhoods. Public transportation hasn’t kept up. The water grid continues to be stressed. Despite its imperfections and challenges, Phoenix is a great place. Art is all over. Cool shops and music venues are the norm. Hikes are always close. At night, the desert stars are sharp. Recently, Phoenix restaurants have turned heads, beginning with the city’s 17 James Beard Award nominations in 2020. These days, Phoenix chefs are cooking Indigenous Thai food, reimagining Sonoran Mexican dishes, getting creative with wild desert ingredients, and making a name for their city. Here’s how to get a taste for Phoenix, in one tortilla-packed day.
Don’t forget to pack… a reusable water bottle. The desert is no joke. Don’t leave town without… a sleeve or two of flour tortillas from an old-school standout, like La Purisima Bakery 2.The best place to stay is… RISE Uptown Hotel. This small Central Phoenix hotel is all about its swank pool and wood-paneled, ‘70s-conjuring rooftop. Both the pool and the rooftop serve unique cocktails, and both are great spots to linger.
For breakfast, a timeless burrito or New Southwestern feast
Many Phoenicians kickstart the day with a breakfast burrito. Though options and styles abound, I always return to the original South Phoenix location of Carolina’s Mexican Food, where hot, pliant flour tortillas are griddled to life before your eyes. These enrobe eggs, cheese, potatoes, chorizo, machaca, and other fillings. You can choose to drown your football-sized meal in fiery enchilada sauce (easy call here). Regulars fill the timeworn, white-brick building starting from 7:00 a.m., when this institution, long operated by the Valenzuela family, opens.
For pastries, daily breakfast and brunch, or posting up with a laptop on a workday, there’s no place better than Valentine, an all-day restaurant in the Melrose neighborhood. Co-owner Blaise Faber calls Valentine a New Southwestern restaurant. Indeed, arcane desert plants find a creative role in just about every dish (and drink): white Sonora wheat in croissants, chiltepin peppers in lattes, O’odham squash in the bread used for breakfast sandwiches. Chef Donald Hawk has fearsome range. Early in the day, try his churro waffle, aromatic with mesquite and chai, or steak and eggs with huitlacoche butter and pork-spiked tepary beans.