Food, Art, and Nature Flourish in Phoenix, Arizona

College Football National Championship banner in Phoenix

While tuned into the College Football National Championship Game, I was reminded of the trip the CompostMaster and I took to Phoenix just before Christmas. Seeing the images of the stadium, cacti at the Desert Botanical Garden, and gorgeous sunsets on TV made me want to relive the experience. I’m bummed that my stepson’s alma mater, Clemson, didn’t pull off winning a national championship, but I’m happy that they had such a great season. Go ACC!


Food in Phoenix

With regard to food, Phoenix has something for everyone, even people with diabetes. Southwestern and Mexican flavors shine in dishes featuring fresh, locally grown ingredients. Think chile peppers, citrus, tomatoes, leafy greens, and root vegetables (we were there in the winter). We even had prickly pear cactus a couple of times. I also liked that so many of the restaurants featured outdoor dining. I guess when your average temperature is 75°F, you can do that. I’m not sure I’d like it when the thermometer hits 119°F, however. The following restaurants served some of our favorite food.

Gertrude’s

Our first foray into Phoenix food occurred at Gertrude’s, located at the Desert Botanical Garden (see below). We had gotten up at 3:30 am Eastern to make our flight and landed at Sky Harbor International Airport around noon Mountain time. After waiting for 30 minutes for the rental car shuttle, then discovering we weren’t in the right place (airport signage is terrible), we found the oasis known as Gertrude’s. Listening to Christmas music on an outdoor patio while surrounded by desert plants was a far cry from the 30°F weather we had left back in Richmond. It was Sunday, so we were offered brunch even though we’d already had two breakfasts. I don’t drink much, but I was tired and a Cactus Cosmo featuring prickly pear nectar sounded perfect. It was. The CompostMaster decided on a glass of a local wine.

Our waiter recommended their burger and pork gumbo, so that’s what we ordered. We also tried the soup of the day – carrot ginger. Normally, for brunch, the gumbo is served over a corn muffin and has an egg on top. Since we were eating after lunchtime, the gumbo was atop horseradish potato salad instead. Now, I’ve had a corn muffin before, but I’ve never had horseradish potato salad and, if I had, I would never have thought to smother it with gumbo. I’m glad we didn’t get there earlier in the day.

We splurged on their signature dessert – doughnut holes made with ricotta cheese (extra protein) and served with three different sauces: smoked chocolate (yes, SMOKED), salted caramel, and prickly pear. It was a prickly pear kind of meal. The smoky dark chocolate was amazing. Not exactly diabetic-friendly, but a truly unique taste sensation.

Gertrude's Restaurant in Desert Botanical Garden

Entrance to Gertrude’s. The patio is out back.

Gertrude's Gumbo

Gumbo atop Horseradish Potato Salad

Province Urban Kitchen & Bar

Province, located in the Westin Phoenix Downtown, is a quiet upscale restaurant and bar that is undergoing a metamorphosis. New manager Rebecca Stocks started a three-phase renovation project about a year ago. She found the executive chef she wanted and they plan to revamp the menu in the spring. They also will expand the bar area.

The food at Province is elegant, sophisticated and very tasty. We started our meal with Avocado Toast – local sourdough bread smeared with avocado and a combination of burrata and ricotta cheese, then topped with heirloom cherry tomatoes, basil, and grapes. It was a great appetizer, but would be a perfect breakfast too.

For our entrées, I ordered the Pan-seared Alaskan Halibut and the CompostMaster got Faroe Island Salmon. I mainly ordered the halibut because it came with beluga lentils which I had never seen before. As it turns out, beluga lentils are fat black lentils that resemble beluga caviar, hence the name. My dinner also featured red quinoa, heirloom carrots, and a tomato broth seasoned with chorizo. I’m not a fan of “fishy” fish, but I loved the halibut. It was firm, fleshy, and flavorful.

We asked our waiter if Faroe Island was somewhere on the West Coast. She explained that the Faroe Islands were near Scotland, and then patiently listened to my husband recant one Scotland story after another. She was a saint all throughout our dinner. The salmon dish was served with a kale salad that included fingerling potatoes. The CompostMaster really liked that the potatoes were covered in vinaigrette too.

Rebecca assured us that Province is a place where you can always get a diabetic-friendly meal. They are happy to accommodate guests with special diets and will modify existing dishes or create something completely new if necessary. (This applies whether you are in the dining room or ordering room service at the Westin.)

Avocado Toast at Province

Avocado Toast

Pan-seared Alaskan Halibut at Province

Pan-seared Alaskan Halibut with Beluga Lentils

Phoenix Public Market

The first real breakfast we had in Phoenix was at the Phoenix Public Market Café with coffee provided by the built-in Cartel Coffee Lab. I’m normally a tea-drinker, but when in coffee heaven, you go with that.

For breakfast, I chose the chickpea pancakes, highly recommended by Food Hunter’s Guide to Cuisine. A vegan option (loaded with protein), the pancakes were served with bananas, pecans, and a little bit of agave syrup on the side. They were so good, I really need to try making them at home. The CompostMaster went with the Flanched Flarney Garney, an egg sandwich with avocado, bacon, and cheddar cheese. Even though we were both still full from the previous night’s dinner, we managed to eat every bite.

The café serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner while using local and organic ingredients as much as possible. The menu is clearly labeled as to which items are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and dairy-free. (The “DF” designation got me excited at first; I thought it meant diabetic-friendly!)

The covered parking lot outside the restaurant doubles as farmers’ market space on Saturday mornings and Thursday evenings. It also hosts food trucks on Fridays during lunchtime. Unfortunately, we were only in town Sunday through Thursday morning, so we missed out on these events.

Chickpea Pancakes at Phoenix Public Market Cafe

Chickpea Pancakes

The Flanched Flarney Garney sandwich at Phoenix Public Market

The Flanched Flarney Garney

Café Allegro

Located inside the Musical Instrument Museum (see below) you’ll find Café Allegro, a place featuring locally sourced, sustainable food. Meals are served cafeteria style and, while the menu isn’t huge, each day they serve a Local option, a Global option, standard grill offerings, grab & go foods, and plenty of sweet treats.

When we visited, the local option was Lamb Stew and the global was Penne with Chicken and Basil. We tried both. The CompostMaster said the lamb stew, full of barley, pattypan squash, and carrots, didn’t taste like any other lamb he’d ever had. It was milder and not gamey at all. He loved it. My penne was heavy on the chicken and light on the pasta (a good thing for someone with diabetes) and served with a salad featuring freshly made Caesar dressing. The chef at Café Allegro cooks the way I like to eat. For example, if he has a choice between potatoes or an ancient grain, he’ll go with the more interesting grain every time.

Lamb Stew at Cafe Allegro

Lamb Stew

Penne with Chicken & Caesar Salad at Cafe Allegro

Penne with Chicken & Caesar Salad

District American Kitchen and Wine Bar

The most impressive meal of the trip in terms of sheer volume was at District in the Sheraton Grand Phoenix. Five of us were treated to the Chef’s Experience dinner by Chef John Marchetti. We had cocktails, we had starters, we had entrées, we had desserts, and we even had dessert cocktails. But the best part of all was listening to the waiter and the chef describe the dishes as they were brought to our table.

I’m writing a separate article about our dinner at District and will post the link here when it’s available.

Chef John Marchetti of District

Chef John Marchetti

3rd Street Market Salad at District

3rd Street Market Salad with butter pecan goat cheese

The Farm at South Mountain

The Farm at South Mountain, a short drive from downtown Phoenix, boasts 10 acres of restaurants, picnic areas, and farms. Home to Morning Glory Café for breakfast, The Farm Kitchen for lunch, and Quiessence for dinner, The Farm has something for everyone. If you’re planning a big event in Phoenix, this is the place to host it.

We sipped coffee and tea on the patio at Morning Glory and enjoyed breakfast in the tranquil setting. I ate homemade granola with Arizona pecans, dried apricots, dried cranberries, and plump golden raisins topped with yogurt and fresh fruit. The CompostMaster had The Farm Omelet: fresh eggs with spinach, goat cheese, and homemade salsa.

As we were leaving, the lunch crowd was starting to roll into The Farm Kitchen. The restaurant is small, but there are many picnic tables outside where you can enjoy a nice, relaxed meal in the Arizona sunshine.

Yogurt with Homemade Granola & Fresh Fruit at The Farm at South Mountain

Yogurt with Homemade Granola & Fresh Fruit

Picnic tables at The Farm at South Mountain

Picnic tables at The Farm

Beckett’s Table

Our final culinary stop in Phoenix was Beckett’s Table, a restaurant in a strip mall. When we saw the location and had to battle dry cleaning customers for a parking space, we were dubious. But Chef Justin Beckett has managed to create a dining experience that works both for families and for sophisticated food lovers. We had a delightful meal that was the perfect end to our food adventure in Phoenix.

Read a more extensive description of our meal at Beckett’s Table at Tar Heel Eater.

Beckett's Table in Phoenix


Art & Nature in Phoenix

Phoenix really does have a lot to offer its visitors besides food. If you like nature, you can wander the trails of the Desert Botanical Garden or head up to Dobbins Point on South Mountain to catch the sunset. If you like music, there’s the one-of-a-kind Musical Instrument Museum. Into art? Check out the Heard Museum and the Phoenix Art Museum. And if you just like all things funky and creative, meander through Roosevelt Row during “vampire hours.”

Desert Botanical Garden

We arrived at the Desert Botanical Garden in the late afternoon on a day when they were closing early due to a members-only event, the Las Noches de Las Luminarias. We raced around the garden and saw what we could in less than an hour. What we did see was gorgeous and so different from the flora and fauna we’re used to in the Eastern U.S. The highlight for me was watching a roadrunner dart between the cacti. I’d love to go back to DBG when we have more time to spend.

Cactus at Desert Botanical Garden Plants at Desert Botanical Garden

Musical Instrument Museum

Phoenix has a very unique museum, the Musical Instrument Museum, which is a two story building on the outskirts of town that probably encompasses three or four city blocks’ worth of space. You want bluegrass, Lithuanian music, or local favorite Alice Cooper? They’ve got it. We started in the “famous musicians” room and heard Elvis, Johnny Cash, John Lennon, King Sunny Adé, and even Taylor Swift.

The coolest thing we saw involved Stevie Ray Vaughan. The CompostMaster is a huge fan of blues guitarist Robert Johnson. On display was a picture of Johnson that Vaughan always kept in his pocket for inspiration.

Robert Johnson postcard at MIM

Robert Johnson postcard carried by Stevie Ray Vaughan

Alice Cooper display at MIM

Memorabilia from Phoenix native Alice Cooper

Heard Museum

The Heard Museum covers the art and culture of the Native peoples of North America, with particular emphasis on the groups in the Southwest. The exhibit that moved me the most was Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience, the story of American Indian children who were forced by the government to abandon their cultural traditions and attend schools hundreds of miles away from their homes.

We were also lucky enough to catch Frida Kahlo – Her Photos and learned a ton about Kahlo, her art, her pain (mostly stemming from a tragic streetcar accident), and her stormy relationship with Diego Rivera. If you happen to be in Phoenix before February 8, 2016, check it out. The exhibit is also currently touring the U.S., so you may be able to see it in other locations.

Heard Museum in Phoenix

Phoenix Art Museum

The Phoenix Art Museum, located a short walk from the Heard Museum, is the largest art museum in the Southwestern U.S. (If you’re staying downtown, take the light rail to the Arts District stop.)

The museum is home to American, Asian, Contemporary, European, Fashion, Latin American, Photography, and Western American collections. The space is visually stunning. We were able to see Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads exhibit. (The CompostMaster and I are both Tigers, by the way. What’s your Chinese Zodiac symbol?)

The best tip I have if you want to visit the Phoenix Art Museum is to go on Wednesday between 3 pm and 9 pm or First Fridays between 6 pm and 10 pm. Why? Admission is free.

Phoenix Art Museum

Roosevelt Row

We were guests of the Sheraton Grand Phoenix during our stay, which is right in the heart of downtown. We had access to the city’s new light rail system, which currently has limited routes but it did allow us to get to the museum district without having to drive. We also could easily stroll the offbeat area known as Roosevelt Row, aka RoRo.

RoRo, a creative artistic district, hosts events such as ugly Christmas sweater parties and the Flannel Ball. It sports restaurants, bars, markets, coffee shops, galleries, and boutiques. Many of the buildings in this area feature murals painted by local artists. We walked through RoRo after breakfast one morning and meant to go back after the place was awake, but we didn’t get the opportunity.

Roosevelt Row mural in Phoenix Roosevelt Row mural in Phoenix

We enjoyed our trip to Phoenix, even though we ate way more than we normally do. At one point, someone offered the CompostMaster a cookie. He said he’d save it for “when I’m hungry again … next week.” With all we experienced, there were still so many things we didn’t get to do. I guess we’ll have to go back again soon. It’s almost spring training season and we love baseball. Hmmmm.

Disclosure: My Arizona trip was hosted by Visit Phoenix and Visit Mesa. Lodging was provided by the Sheraton Grand Phoenix. Several meals and tours were discounted or provided free of charge. All opinions are my own.

Eating Phoenix

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