Foodie Guide / Arizona
Kat Peterson is an Instagram influencer and food photographer in Minneapolis. She's passionate about discovering small local culinary producers and watching them thrive. There is no doubt she knows good food, but it's the interaction with the families and chefs who have opened their kitchens and hearts that most impress her. Last fall she was invited to Southeast Arizona to experience and share the area's booming agritourism. We sat down at Penny's in Linden Hills to get the highlights.
Greater Phoenix, Arizona
I grew up in New Mexico and I always thought Arizona was a vast dusty landscape filled with snowbirds and cactus. Last Fall I had the opportunity to discover the real Arizona, when the tourism board hosted a small group of food bloggers in and around Phoenix, Mesa and Tucson. We have such a limited growing season in MN but the climate and soil in Arizona allows for anything and everything to thrive. The variety of fresh food has established this area as a premier, under the radar foodie destination in the US.
When to go?
Fall is a great time to visit AZ. I was especially excited the timing allowed us to attend Martha Stewart's Food & Wine experience in Scottsdale. While this event changes venues annually the area still plays host to a multitude of foodie events year round. Many wineries, restaurants and farms offer opportunities to learn about what's on the plate and how it got there... who grew it, where, why & how.
How to get there?
We flew direct to Phoenix (PHX), drove between cities and walked a ton in Tucson. Mesa and Scottsdale are within minutes of downtown Phoenix, so by my standard they are considered suburbs. Tucson is the furthest away at about a 2-hour drive.
Where should we stay?
We spent nights in Phoenix and Tucson to allow enough time to explore both areas extensively. In Phoenix, we stayed at the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel which is a Marriott property. Here I was both impressed and surprised by the quality of the hotel food. Their restaurant Dust Cutter was nice enough to eat at even if we hadn't stayed there, and the bartender makes incredible craft cocktails. In my room, I was provided the ingredients from AZ distilling Company in Mesa to mix my own cocktail. Their Copper City Bourbon is used in the chicken waffles at the restaurant. Further supporting the local community, this type of product sharing delights me.
RTip: If a boutique hotel is more your style check out The Hermosa Inn. This casita style hideaway has just the right amount of Southwest charm and amenities, central to the Phoenix-Scottsdale area, and only 15 minutes from the airport. Check out our Scottsdale Guide for even more places to stay.
In Tucson we stayed at The Lodge on the Desert and at The Hotel Congress. Honestly, I'd recommend either because you can enjoy a great meal at both properties. They do a nice job of connecting their guests to the source of their food by partnering with local vendors. The Lodge has a restaurant called Cielos, with a cozy open air patio around a large fireplace and frequent live music. If it's on the menu order the tar tar. I also loved the seasonal vegetable salad, mine had brussel sprouts, and the bone-in pork chop. Alternatively, The Hotel Congress offers affordable rooms in the heart of the city. Here, I enjoyed breakfast at the Cup Cafe, a hidden gem with delicious comfort food. The Hotel also owns the restaurant across the street, Maynards Market & Kitchen. They have a nice wine list, lovely cafe seating outside, and grow ingredients in their on-site in the garden.
" I would go back to eat at Maynards, totally my style dining and a good opportunity for food photography."
What should we do?
Attend a local foodie event if you want to meet chefs and delight in great food. As I mentioned before, we visited in the fall so we could participate in the USA Today wine and food experience at Salt River Fields. The event hosted a number of local restaurants and offered tastings in open environment where we could freely engage and interact with the chefs. It's very reminiscent of Taste the Nation offered across the country and a favorite of mine to attend in Minneapolis. To experience something similar, start with The Salt River Fields event page. You'll see the AZ Taco Festival coming up in October followed by Mac & Cheese Fest in November. I know right? Twist my arm.
RTip: Check out the event dinners at Cloth and Flame. You won't be disappointed by their spectacular outdoor and private experiences.
In Mesa, we enjoyed the Fresh Foodie Trail and immersed ourselves in the system of locally shared product that has helped Arizona's agritourism grow in recent years. The trail itself is self-guided and includes popular food-driven experiences at landmarks throughout the Southeast Valley. Here are a few highlights:
Schnepf Farm - This "Arizona Treasure" is a 300 acre working farm, communal market, museum and event center and is the largest organic peach grower in the state. They offer farm dinners, amusements, pick your own produce and Airstream glamping on property at the Cozy Peach. We extended our time so we didn't miss the bakery's incredible cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven. This place really is a treasure.
Nearby, you'll find Queen Creek Olive Mill where you can participate in one of three daily farm tours, or shop the olive oil, wine and beauty products (my favorite is the lavender and olive oil lip balm!) and EAT! Where do we start... make your own bruschetta, wood-fired pizza, chardonnay herb cheese, chocolate avocado cupcake... or just an Affogato at the coffee roastery on property. I suggest finding a tree to sit with your goodies and take in the surrounding olive grove.
Also on the Fresh Foodie Trail is True Garden. This is a wonderful experience for those interested in sustainable food sources. True Garden is all about Aquaponics and they know their craft. Situated in a strip mall it looks like you're going to be sold a condo but instead you'll find an urban farm and state of the art aeroponic garden. They sell tower gardens so you can grow your own food vertically. It's amazing. They offer a CSA locally so we had a chance to sample veggies and marvel at the tower gardens and veggie oasis.
If you are someone who likes the growing something from the earth and traditional ways of cultivating the land, check out Hayden Flour Mills at Sossaman Farms. For more than 100 years they have been grinding heritage and ancient grains grown on small farms in Arizona. Each bag of flour is milled fresh, minimally processed and full of flavor. Everyday they work with chefs, farmers and conservationists to revive Arizona's local grain economy.
"When I travel I like to take local ingredients home, so that 'their local' can meet 'my local' and I can make something flavorful and unique. From Sossaman, I took home heritage grain crackers, and some wheat berries to make a salad paired with local Midwest cheese."
In partnership with Hayden Flour Mills you'll find Barrio Bread in Tucson. Passionate about breads and native grains and seeds, Barrio Bread works with the University and Sossaman to retain the integrity of the process. That's a large distance to have that kind of relationship and it says a lot about the quality of the flour. There are lines out the door, JUST for bread. It's delicious and they always sell out.
Where should we eat?
Besides eating at special events and venues along the Fresh Foodie Trail, there were several other food favorites in the area.
"It says something to me, when the people eating there actually live there."
On a historic corner in Gilbert, Liberty Market is focused on classic local cuisine and known for their Salt River Bar, basically saltines, chocolate & salt. While the bars are delicious, if you ask me, it's the chilaquiles that are worth coming back for. Also in Gilbert, you'll find Toasted Mallow (formerly Fluff It). Here you can enjoy everything marshmallow. I loved the unicorn cookie dough marshmallow fluff and a marshmallow shake.
Next on the list is Boca Tacos & Tequilla in Tucson, where we met Maria the outgoing, talented, force behind the authentic restaurant. She makes an terrific combination of salsas, delicious tacos and a strong cocktail. She sources her tortillas from La Noria, based in Mexico and sold locally! Also in Tucson, I loved Isabella's Ice Cream where I enjoyed a bubble waffle cone and a macaroon ice cream sandwich.
Finally, you must visit Jalapeno Bucks in Mesa. This husband and wife team used to make BBQ out of the garage, but the demand was so high they opened a restaurant. This walk up roadside joint on the side of the highway offers only outdoor seating at communal picnic tables. Surrounded by a citrus grove the setting is unique, and while it has a hometown vibe, many locals still don't know about this gem. Order the PB&J brisket sandwich and you won't be disappointed.
What is the one can't miss item on your itinerary?
Agritopia! This was the last stop for us on the Fresh Foodie Trail and a big part of our day for good reason. It's a planned community on 11 acres of urban farmland surprisingly close to the Mesa regional airport in Gilbert. There is a farm, restaurant, makers market (Barnone), private school, senior living center and coffee shop. There are also community gardens, planned residential neighborhoods, parks and a luxury apartment building filled with retail and dining spaces that promote healthy living. There were kids everywhere. It felt like a local community, not a touristy place. Like a neighborhood, filled with hidden gems that aren't on the map but still full of people. Wholesome, heartfelt and handmade, Agritopia cultivates the people and the land.
"The way that it felt there, was not like anywhere I've ever been. It was right out of the movie Pleasantville. I wanted to live there."
Where can we grab a drink?
AZ distilling company in Mesa, near the Hayden Flour Mill is "committed to sharing Arizona with the world, one glass at a time." They make Bourbon, Gin and Vodka, preferred at the Renaissance Phoenix Hotel and at the hotel's Speakeasy, Melinda's Alley. You can tour the distillery and taste on-site daily in their new location.
My coffee suggestion is Exo Roast Co. in Tucson (they sell bright pink kombucha too). I had a kimchi sandwich on what else but Barrio bread.
Let's not forget about beer. In Tucson we visited two breweries on foot. First find the communal tables in the hidden tasting room at Ermanos Craft Brew and Wine Bar. Then visit Pueblo Vida Brewing Company, where they brew in local barrels and use Sossoman grain. The craft beer is top notch and you can tell they know good beer by the collection of brewery stickers on wall. I was spotted wearing my Fair State t-shirt and I felt right a home. If it's on tap, they have a great prickly pear pale ale.
Tell us something we don't know?
Agricultourism is intended to be concentrated on supporting local vendors and products, but I'm always surprised by the extent of that reach in Arizona, where they can literally grow anything and everything. You might be wondering where they get their water? Almost half of the states water source is from ground water in natural reservoirs called aquifers. The other major contributor is surface water with 39% supplied through the Colorado River. The remaining source is reclaimed water. As the population grows more treated water will need to be available. Source: Arizona Department of Resources.
What should we shop for, or bring back with us?
The Banana Split marshmallows from Toasted Mallow are easy to pack and bring home with you. I like to bring back local ingredients to re-invent dishes I cook at home. For authentic Mexican, pick-up some flour tortillas from Carniceria La Noria in Tucson (where Boca Tacos gets their tortillas) then pick up some jalapeño hot sauce at Cutinos in Phoenix. You should also be sure to take something home with you from Hayden Flour Mills. This can be pizza flour, crackers, grains or pasta if you like to cook, or a flour bag & flour towels, if you don't. Finally, if you are at Barrio Bread on your last day grab a fresh heritage loaf!
What should we take on the trip?
Comfy shoes for walking, especially in Tucson, on the farms and at Agritopia! If you travel on your stomach like me, you'll want loose fitting clothing to expand your waist band and it gets chilly dining outdoors at night so light cardigan is a must.
Click here to see everywhere Kat recommends in Arizona.