Disclaimer: I arrogantly pride myself in my photography. All photos displayed on this site are my own, and I have yet to make an exception. However, I did not have photography on my mind during this trip and had no intention of writing anything about what turned out to be a somewhat (spoiler alert) unspectacular trip in terms of storytelling. The photos in this entry are my own, but I’m not proud of them.
I recently found myself in Phoenix for a quick business trip and had some time to explore a city I had never been to before, and may never go to again. Before the trip I had asked a few simple questions to the r/phoenix group on Reddit. I’m sure a wiki exists for questions like “what’s the best Mexican food?” and “what do I wear when it’s hot?”, but I wanted some personalized answers, and to open a conversation that I could be a part of. This was my post.
I was in Phoenix for a librarian conference on Sunday (6/17/17) and Monday (6/18/17), but it wasn’t a typical weekend. A heat wave in the area had made national news, in part because flights were being cancelled because of it.
I landed around 1PM Arizona time on Saturday and had the rest of the day to myself. Reddit had provided so many recommendations that it was hard to pick, but looking at the map I decided to drive east to drive around the Tonto National Forest a bit. The plan was to stay on the east side of the valley and explore the west side another day, maybe.
Before I could do anything though I needed food. I saw Little Miss BBQ was so close to the airport so I headed there first. It was one of the most recommended restaurant stops. I was warned about the lines, but it was so close to it and everyone seemed to love it so much. The line was way out the door and I wasn’t prepared for that. I didn’t have a jug of water and didn’t have sunscreen on. I thought I’d die of dehydration while waiting in line for BBQ in my first hour in a desert city. I moved on.
Driving East down University Drive I kept an eye out for places to eat. I couldn’t recall everyone’s recommendations but I was so hungry that I stopped at the first hole-in-the-wall looking Mexican place. It ended up being Susie’s Mexican Café. At first I thought I made a mistake. The menu seemed cheap and tacky and the combination plates of Taco + Burro etc. reminded me of places back home in Boston. But when the food came I was relieved. It was just… better. And dirt cheap. As proof that I’m a bit too old to be a millennial, I didn’t take a pic of the food. I did take a pic of the beer as I waited though, mostly out of boredom.
Over the course of my visit I asked many locals about their favorite Mexican place and never received the same answer twice. As long as you don’t go to Chipotle or Taco Bell, I think it’s hard to go wrong.
My next stop was a gas station for a gallon of water for the car and some sunscreen. I was beginning to appreciate the heat, and the different type of ‘dry heat’ that I wasn’t used to. The first place it affected was the mouth, which dried up after the first breath. I knew that there was no such thing as too much water. And even though I didn’t plan to be outside much I did cover myself with sunscreen. As my left arm rested in the car while driving I found it impossible to get it out of the sun. There was no shade. I needed sunscreen for the drive. This is a pain that every desert-dweller has to deal with daily, and I was learning first hand now.
I eventually passed by Saguaro Lake and thought it was a good time to get out a bit. It looked like a popular recreational lake for boating and swimming. As I parked I saw plenty of pale people in small bathing suits carrying giant tubes. All I could think is how dangerous it looked to be in the sun for that long, and that I hoped they were wearing sun screen. I did not express my concern to them out loud. I don’t think they’d appreciate dermatological advice from an elite east-coaster that had been in their city for a few hours.
I was out for about 15 minutes, and never more than a 60 second sprint to my car. But I could see the danger in hiking and being out in this heat. A 16 oz bottle of water would get you nowhere. In talking to a taxi driver a few days later he mentioned that sun damage was a secondary concern to rattlesnakes in the lake and river. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time.
I drove back to the grid of the valley and ended up in Scottsdale. I pulled over at a cool looking gift shop in what seemed to be the downtown area as I wanted to get a small gift for my 2 and 6 year old daughters. After being discouraged with the prices in the store I started walking around and realized I was in a unique place. There were gift and jewelry stores everywhere so I spent a while walking around. I ended up getting each kid a small dreamcatcher necklace for $6 each. I believe someone mentioned I was walking around Old Town. I didn’t confirm that until writing this entry, but the name seemed appropriate. I told the cashier of my crash-course in greater Phoenix and she recommended I go north a few blocks to the river where there were cool places to eat. I was more thirsty and tired than hungry at this point, but it seemed wise to follow her advice and catch the dream she had created for me.
I parked at a mall across the river (which was actually the Arizona Canal) and changed from jeans to shorts in the back of the rented jeep. The sun was starting to go down so I was less scared of exposing my bare legs to the angry sun. I walked around a bit and ended up sitting at the bar at Tapas Papa Frita. I still wasn’t hungry, so I ordered some squid in ink and a tomato salad, which were both way too salty. I managed to finish both, but I knew I needed a rest so I drove downtown to my hotel for the evening.
It was probably around 9PM now, and I was ready to end my night with a long night’s sleep, but I wanted to first take a refreshingly cool walk and explore the downtown a bit. In Boston, we have heat waves where it gets above 90 for a few days in a row. But once the sun goes down, a cool breeze comes in and it’s finally safe to go about your business outside. But this doesn’t happen in Phoenix, apparently. There was no relief. I walked around an outdoor mall and it felt like someone was following me with a space heater. My mind couldn’t process the fact that it was this hot after the sun was completely set. I could see why there weren’t many other people walking with me.
Sunday was the first day of the conference, but it didn’t start until noon. Since I was still on east coast time I had no issue waking up around 6AM and just driving around. This time I headed west and thought route 60 looked interesting for absolutely no reason. I followed it all the way up to route 303 for a nice loop with only a few stops. I visited a grocery store, and a Walmart to get a cheap hat with more sun covering.
I also stopped at an interesting Mexican supermarket. They were making a mind-numbingly large amount of tortillas on a conveyor belt in the back. I stood and watched for a long 45 seconds in hopes that they would just hand me one as a sample. They didn’t. I also drove to Lake Pleasant and wanted a nice picture of a cactus. The results weren’t great.
The conference was only a 5 minute walk from the hotel, but there was no other option but to walk outside. About halfway through this mini-walk I realized I forgot my phone in the hotel room. I love to walk and will walk for hours if given the time and space. But in this case it did cross my mind to consider the phone a casualty for the day and deal without it. This wasn’t the year 2004, so I turned around, retrieved my phone, re-applied deodarant, and headed to the conference, again.
The conference was over around 5 and I headed south for dinner. It was my last night with my car so the evening needed to end at the rental car place. Taking the advice of Reddit, I headed for Comedor Guadalajara, but it wasn’t going to happen. There was no place to park and I could see dozens of people waiting outside. I didn’t want to spend my last night with a car waiting in line alone. I kept heading south and ended up at El Nuevo Taquito a few blocks down. It was the second time I stopped at a random hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint, and this one was amazing, though it wasn’t in a great looking area.
I ordered what I considered too much food, and probably more than one entree, and a drink. I didn’t look at prices as I ordered, but they lady said my total was $7ish. At first I thought it was a mistake, as if she forgot to add everything except my drink. But no, it was just dirt cheap, and the best meal I ate during my trip. I never take a picture of my food, but I had to share it with the Yankees back home.
I drove as far south as I could and reached the end of Phoenix as the sun went down. I returned my car and took an Uber back downtown. I told the driver of my day and she suggested I should have just gone to Sedona instead. Two people told me that, and maybe I should have. Sometimes I have more fun with less of a plan, but then I regret what could have been with more foresight.
Monday at lunch I was stuck downtown for the conference, and people suggested the Arrogant Butcher so I walked there with some colleagues. It was fine and trendy, but not unlike something I could get in Boston. I longed for a hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint.
By the time the conference was over I had my mind set on my last meal in town as I was leaving early the next morning. I scoured the Reddit suggestions but not a lot was in walking distance. Just looking at map I chose “Rodiberto’s Mexican Food” which was a 12 minute walk. I armed myself with a 16 ounce bottle of water and walked north. When I got there the restaurant was empty. In fact the entire walk was empty. It just didn’t seem like a fun place to eat at alone. But I remembered the area around the Arrogant Butcher was a cool place so I started walking south in a hunt for more people.
I had been out in the heat for around an hour now, though it was 630PM. My water was nearly empty and I didn’t want the wonderful tax payers to need to pay for my helicopter rescue, so my focus turned from food to water. I walked into Carl’s Jr by the stadium with expectations of spending $4 for a simple bottle of water. Instead the guy immediately just said “want me to fill up your water bottle?”. Even the guy at Carl’s Jr. knew I didn’t want to eat at Carl’s Jr. He just didn’t want me to die on the way to eat better food.
It was hot. So hot that I wanted to both prove and share how hot it was, so I took a screenshot of my phone weather app. It said 126 °F, and at the time I had no reason not to believe it. But Chungs Test Station may need to be recalabrated, or their thermometer may need to be moved further away from the toaster oven, as the reading exceeded the all-time recorded high of 122 °F set in 1990. According to accuweather the high that day was only 118 °F, but it made for an interestingly exaggerated photo for social media.
I ended up at Chico Malo, which may be touristy and trendy, and may be overpriced, but it was nice. I ordered a margarita, but when that was done, I asked for an infinite supply of water.
I noted to the bartender that I’d been hearing Michael Jackson a lot on the radio in Phoenix. They were playing Dirty Diana at the time. She hadn’t noticed, and commented that she found Michael Jackson’s voice irritating. I never thought of that, and I guess I can see her point. I noted that I tend to like acquired taste vocalists like Rush’s Geddy Lee. She hadn’t heard of Rush. I moved on and walked back to my hotel room.
The buzz at the airport was the cancelling of flights and everyone seemed to have a different reason as to why. They needed to kick 12 of us off the plane but it didn’t cause much of a scene.
I had been fighting a cold before I left for Phoenix and most of my symptoms had gone away except for a bad sore throat, and at this point, blood in my snot. My feet were also cracked at the heels in ways I’ve never seen before. If I ever go back to a dessert I’ll need to remember to moisturize.
I was happy to get back to Boston where I could feel my own sweat and blow out non-bloody snot. But the city is wonderful, of course.