Arizona · Charleston · Entertainment in AZ · Restaurants in AZ

An Excessive and Irresponsible 30th Birthday Celebration

Ms. Jenny.
This past Friday night, Jake and I were sitting around watching Trollhunter—a B-horror movie from Norway—when our pal Brandon showed up at the front door. I had a couple seconds to think, “Huh, why is Brandon showing up at our house when he knows Jake has to work tomorrow?” Then, a girl walked in behind him, and I swore I knew her from somewhere. Then, in the dimness of our living room, I recognized the smiling face of my chica from Charleston, Jenny, who Jake had secretly flown in as a super spectacular birthday present to me. The next minute is kind of a blur, but I’m pretty sure there was a lot of hugging and cheek kissing and crying. So began my thirtieth birthday weekend.

Is the age of thirty any different from twenty-nine? Not particularly.  I guess people make a big deal out of it because it’s a nice round number, and it signifies the entrance into a new decade of life. I remember twenty didn’t mean anything, because at twenty, you were old enough to be in college but still too young to legally drink. At thirty, I gain nothing except a three where a two once was, yet because Jenny was here this weekend, I felt like thirty did mean something—because my weekend meant so much.

I met Jenny at work in Charleston, my very first week of habitation in South Carolina. That same week happened to be my birthday week, but I had no plan to celebrate, because I didn’t know anyone. Jenny, however, brought me a cupcake the day of my birthday. It was shocking to have a perfect stranger come into my office and put a cheerfully decorated pastry on my desk. We’ve been friends ever since.

Once Jenny got settled into our new house here in Phoenix, we went out Friday night to Ground Control, where we met friendly bartenders and patrons who bought us expensive shots of Frida Kahlo tequila, bless them.  We laughed and laughed until my ribs hurt and I was reminded of all the times we used to cackle on the beaches of South Carolina. Going to bed sounded terrible. Like a kid on Christmas Eve, I was too excited to sleep. I wanted to play, play, play, but since I’m thirty, I’m too old to play, play, play all night … or was I? Friday night, we slept; Saturday night, we didn’t, but we didn’t know what was to come as of Saturday morning, when we put on bathing suits and got mani-pedis together at the spa.

Following a highly productive trip to Total Wine, we went and hung out at a friend’s pool all afternoon. Jake met us there at lunch time, and it was all about the Absolut Miami and pineapple juice. I could have taken a nap, sure, but I didn’t want to miss any Jenny time. We reminisced about Belize, where Jake and I spent every day like Jenny and I spent Saturday.

At five, we showered and dressed, me in a highly out of character skin-tight lavender satin dress. The skin-tight was normal; the pastel color was not. We met the rest of our crew at Hula’s Modern Tiki downtown, where I enjoyed fresh fish and my cocktail of choice, the Dark & Stormy. As a collective, we consumed a Volcano Bowl—a thirty-dollar chalice of mixed liquors and fruit. I received copious offerings of expensive whiskey, tequila, and rum as birthday gifts (I love my friends). The rest of the night was composed of dancing at Sage and Sand, drinking cinnamon-flavored liquor, an after-party at my place (where we tasted all my birthday presents), and an eventual bedtime of 4:30 AM. Who says thirty is old, right?

Volcano Bowl. Mmmm.
I hated seeing Jenny leave on Sunday, and I already miss the lady friend who makes me laugh the most. I will be on a detox schedule, yes, for the next two years, but it was worth it. Huge, excessive birthday celebrations are always worth it, as long as friends are along for the ride, and great friends, I do have a few. By a few, I mean many, and maybe that was my favorite part of Saturday: watching a group of very different people converse, argue, and bond over preferred movie villains, shots of Fireball, and an obsessive love for seventies disco music.

Age doesn’t have to do with a number. It has to do with the friends you’ve made—and kept—along the way. I’m so blessed to have friends all over the country who I still keep in touch with. I’m blessed to have friends here in Phoenix who brighten my life on a daily basis. I’m blessed to have my very best friend, my hubbie Jake, who Jenny refers to as her Xanax substitute. That’s how all good friends are: they relax us, calm us, and keep us from going nuts … even on my dirty thirty.

Arizona · Charleston · Restaurants in AZ

Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen: Bayou Cookin’ in Phoenix

Did you know Red Lobster is dangerous? Yeah. Me neither. Here’s how it happened. Right before Christmas, I ran in to the nearest Red Lobster to buy a gift card for Jake’s grandpa. I thought it would be a simple task, but when I walked in and smelled seafood I got sick to my stomach.

At my first oyster roast on Sullivan's Island in South Carolina. Love.
Not because I don’t like seafood. I love seafood. This was something else. This was something I didn’t even realize I missed, and that “something” was Charleston, South Carolina. Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t miss the person I was in Charleston. I don’t miss the dating scene in Charleston. I don’t miss humidity, but I do miss oysters from Charleston. I miss the ambience of gas-lamp-lit streets at night and cobblestone pathways. I miss the way every restaurant in Charleston smells like seafood and how you can sit on Shem Creek and have a beer while watching shrimp boats unload their bounty.

This realization, while standing in Red Lobster, was enough to make me sit at the bar and take deep breaths. I got all emotional! I know, me? Emotional? Unbelievable right? Ha. But seriously, when I got back to my car, I felt all shaky and desperate to be back in Charleston if only for a day.

I told Jake about it that night—the way the smell of a seafood restaurant had cast me back to 2008 and Charleston, the Most Beautiful City on Earth. Then, last weekend, Jake suggested we go on a date, but he wouldn’t tell me where we were going. First, we sat outside on the porch and drank Corona. No, it wasn’t because I particularly like Corona. It was because drinking Corona outside while watching a sunset reminded me of being in Charleston, where I did stuff like that all the time. We set off on our surprise date soon after, and what a surprise it was when Jake pulled into the parking lot of a mysterious restaurant called “Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen.” And what bliss when I walked in to the smell of seafood!

I can’t describe the joy. A wave of ecstatic enthusiasm washed over me like Atlantic Ocean foam. I could barely refrain from running up to the bar and shouting, “Oyster shooters! NOW! … And where are your raw oysters from? Galveston? Sure! I’ll take a dozen! …. You make a good Bloody Mary? Sure! Two of them! HOORAH!”

The place was packed, which is always a good sign. It was filled to exploding with a completely mixed demographic, which makes me truly believe that no one is immune to creatures of the sea. The wait staff was pleasant, funny, and accommodating. The oyster shooters weren’t as good as the ones on East Bay in Charleston, but nothing is perfect. The raw oysters themselves—served with rockin’ fresh horseradish—were practically orgasmic. I did my best to subdue my obnoxious moans of enjoyment, but I couldn’t help it. It had been months since my last raw oyster, and girlfriend has an addiction. The seared scallops were a little salty, but I ate every last one. Jake and I both cleaned our plates; we were so full, we barely made it home before we both fell asleep.

If you like seafood and you find yourself living in a land-locked state called Arizona, you have to try Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen. It’s like a pool of warm ocean water in the middle of the desert. It’ll bring back memories you never knew you had, and for a moment, you can pretend you’re sitting on a beach at dusk, watching Southern boys shuck oysters into ice-filled buckets.

Pappadeaux's back patio in Phoenix. Did I mention they have live music??

Restaurants in AZ

What Do You Crave?

As I sit here, sipping my Green Mountain Pumpkin Spice coffee, I realize that every year about this time, I crave the stuff. I stalk the Green Mountain website and wait … wait … until they announce: “Pumpkin Spice coffee is on sale for a limited time!” They say “limited,” because it’s true: Pumpkin Spice sells out almost immediately. I order several bags of it to make sure I get my fix, but it’s never quite enough. Come October, when the Pumpkin Spice is sold out, my craving is never sated. Maybe that’s their sales tactic: always leave the audience wanting more.

This brings up a question: what else do I crave? More importantly, what do I crave here in Phoenix? I have a background of growing up near good food. As a kid, my entire family cooked Italian food from scratch. Around Christmas time, I would always crave the Angeli family homemade ravioli, filled with garlic and covered in cheese. In Charleston, I would have incredible (I’m talking pregnant woman style) cravings for oysters and Bloody Marys—easy to fix in a city by the sea. So now, in Phoenix, what is it I have to have every couple months? Let me tell you …

The Nuclear Fallout martini at West Valley favorite Ground Control. Not for the faint of heart, you might see the mystical Green Fairy after too many of these cool concoctions of Agwa Coca Leaf Liqueur and Le Tourment Vert Absinthe.

Fresh bread with parmesan cheese and garlic butter at Bella Luna. Another West Valley locale, it’s locally owned, and sometimes, the chef escapes the kitchen long enough to sing some Italian opera.

Fish tacos at Gallo Blanco. Light, messy, and filled with flavor. Not only is the food yum-worthy, but the environment is one of the best in the Valley, featuring the backdrop of the hip, retro Clarendon Hotel. Frida Kahlo would have loved it.

Any and all Mexican food, most notably Jake’s guacamole and my homemade margaritas. Tragically, my favorite Mexican restaurant so far discovered in Arizona is Café Poca Cosa in Tucson. My dream is that someday charming owner Suzana Davila will open a restaurant in Phoenix and wow us with even more of her fresh, decadent Mexican feasts.

Hawaiian Ceviche at Hula’s Modern Tiki. The description says it all: fresh white fish, “cooked” in citrus juice, coconut milk, chili, and cilantro. Like summer by the sea … on a plate.

Bruschetta boards at Postino. If you’ve ever been to Postino, you know about the bruschetta. I can’t go there without ordering a board. The best choices? Fresh Mozzarella with Tomato and Basil; Prosciutto with Figs and Mascarpone; and Burrata, Bacon, Arugula, and Tomato.

Finally, the pizza at Cibo. Yes, this place has memories; it’s where Jake and I got engaged. Regardless of this, the pizza is phenomenal. I could never choose a favorite, but with fresh ingredients like basil, prosciutto, arugula, and sliced tomatoes, you can’t go wrong.

Now that I’m starving … what will you crave this incoming fall season? What do you crave in the Valley of the Sun? Share your suggestions with me, and maybe we’ll meet up for dinner soon! I mean, who in their right mind doesn’t love food?

Arizona · Entertainment in AZ · Restaurants in AZ

Holy BLANK I’m 29

I learned several things this weekend as I celebrated my birthday:
1. Drag shows are like burlesque shows without real boobs.
2. You can fit two people on a massage table at the same time.
3. Flamenco dancers are hot.
4. Jake does a stunning rendition of Hall and Oates’ “Maneater.”
5. Pizza rolls and Humphrey Bogart make hang-overs better.

Allow me to explain …

Friday, we went to a Scandalesque student recital at a place called “The Rock.” I had no idea it was a gay bar until we arrived and there were rainbows everywhere. Jake didn’t seem to mind. He ordered a Long Island Iced Tea; I ordered a Corona. The cute, gay bartender asked Jake if he wanted a lime in his beer. Jake said, “The beer is for her.” The bartender then called me “Butch.” I had a blast seeing dancers I have danced with in class on The Rock’s glittery stage. Jake saw his first feather routine, and I seriously considered slipping a dollar bill in a drag queen’s cleavage. I know, historically, that drag shows grew from burlesque. Now, I’ve seen the proof.

Saturday afternoon, Jake and I got a couple’s massage at Hand and Stone in Goodyear. I asked for deep tissue, and at one point, the young woman asked, “Do you mind if I get on the table with you?” I said, “Sure!” and she did some awesome glute compressions on me. That’s what I meant about two people on a massage table; what did you think I was talking about …?

The roof at The Clarendon Hotel.
After spending the rest of the afternoon by the pool, Jake and I got dressed up and headed downtown to The Clarendon Hotel. We arrived at 5 PM, even though the party didn’t officially start until six. Arriving at five gave us time to wander around, check out the roof, and gawk at the bright, shining pool deck. (I’m obsessed.) It also gave me time to have a Prickly Pear Margarita and time for us to share Gallo Blanco’s citrus guacamole. Unbeknownst to me, there was a flamenco troupe performing in the bar that evening, and seriously—no matter what you look like, if you’re dancing flamenco, you’re hot.

Our gang of twelve rolled in at 6 PM, and we lost ourselves in conversation, cocktails, and TACOS!! Once filled to popping, it was time for karaoke, west valley style, at Tap’s, down the street from our house. Not only did the DJ announce it was my birthday, but I got to see my friends sing, dance, and do about a million shots. In particular, I love when Jake gets on stage. I swear he was born to be a rock star. We were so out of control, in fact, that the next morning, I received a text from one of my buddy’s wives: “That boy is not allowed shots. Puked tons when he got home.”

I wasn’t too hung-over the day after. Miraculous? I suppose. Maybe it was an early birthday gift, considering my official birthday is today. Jake, romantic gentleman that he is, blew up our queen-sized inflatable mattress in the living room yesterday. Together, we watched Casablanca, ate pizza rolls, and dozed, all day long …

Did I have the perfect birthday weekend? I think so. I can’t imagine a better way to spend it, than with the people I have come to know and love here in the Valley. Do I feel introspective today, now that I’m twenty-nine? Not really.

Daddy and me.
I already received the phone call from my mom this morning, marking the very minute I was born. She does it every year, telling me that when her water broke, she thought I was a little demon trying to escape. How my face was blue when I came out and opened my mouth in a silent scream. How my dad had tears in his eyes. (Precious.) I love this phone call. I look forward to it every year, but every year on my birthday, I don’t feel older. I don’t feel different. I just feel excited, because I’ve made it another year—none the wiser but luckier and luckier every day. Face it: It’s not how many years you spend on earth; it’s how you spend them. Today, I’m spending my time with the man I love. He’s the best birthday present I could ask for.

Arizona · Restaurants in AZ

Romance is NOT Dead

I don’t mean to brag, but I’m marrying the most amazing man on earth. So I guess I do mean to brag.

Last week, while paging through my planner, I noticed a hand-written note that said, “Dinner with your sexy man?” on Wednesday the 25th. It was a note from Jake, and I circled this suggestion and said, “Yes! Dinner with my sexy man it shall be!” He wouldn’t tell me where we were going, but he did tell me he was getting his best suit dry-cleaned—which meant I had to come up with a stunning ensemble to not look like a goat next to my soon-to-be-husband.

Wednesday at 4:30 PM, we got on the road and started driving north. Jake wore his fancy black suit with a brand new green dress shirt. (Verrrrry handsome.) I wore a purple, satin dress that once belonged to my Aunt Susie—a dress Jake had never seen before—and I felt pretty dang good standing beside him. So we drove north. And north. And north, until we finally got off the 17 at the Thunderbird exit. Now, I was completely lost. I’d never been vaguely close to that area before. Where on earth was he taking me?

Jake turned the car into the entrance for the Tapatio Cliffs Resort. Up and up a mountain we drove, until we finally reached the top and the restaurant, Different Point of View. A different point of view it certainly was! The bar was on the third floor of the characteristically red and orange building—very Southwestern—and it overlooked the entirety of the Valley of the Sun. We could see the skyscrapers of downtown Phoenix, the white mansions of Scottsdale, and even the edges of Camelback Mountain. Jake ordered a mojito; I had an “Appletini.” Then, we headed to the fourth-floor dining room.

The view from the patio, Different Point of View.
The staff at Different Point of View treated us like celebrities. They were there whenever we needed anything. They asked questions, making sure we were happy. They offered to take pictures of us. They smiled and chatted and kept the table spotless. The bus boy even had a crumber!! But what about the food?

Well, when we first sat down, a lovely young lady brought us what appeared to be fancy tater tots—compliments of the chef—covered in crème fraiche and chive. Who knew tater tots could be so good? We then ordered an appetizer: the Pan Seared Diver Scallops. I can never resist scallops, plus these were covered in a caramelized butternut reduction. For our entrées (not an easy choice with all the amazing menu items), I went with the Ancho Seared Palo Verde Pork Tenderloin, served with Pumpkin Honey Corn Cake, Charred Shallots, Pepita Pesto, and a Dried Bing Cherry and Tarragon Reduction. It was practically too beautiful to eat … but I ate it, and once I ate it, I realized it was practically too rich to finish!

The pork tenderloin. MMMmmmm...
Jake got the Rosemary Port Wine Braised Milk Fed Veal Shank, served with Root Vegetable Parmesan Risotto, Maple Reduction and Chervil Toasted Garlic Gremolata, and some cheese-covered gnocchi I can’t find on the menu. Needless to say, not only was his meal a piece of art, but it was the best veal I’ve ever tasted. Finally, we had crème brulee. We had to, even though we were both set to explode, and it was well worth the extra calories. When they brought the check, they also brought little cubes of orange-flavored chocolate. Heaven.

When I told my father on Wednesday morning that Jake was taking me out to a restaurant and wearing a suit, he said, “What are you, getting engaged?” To which he followed with, “Oh, wait a minute …” No, we didn’t go to Different Point of View to get engaged again. Jake took me there as a reminder of how much he loves me and how, even though we know we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together, it doesn’t hurt to rekindle the romance every now and then.

I challenge all of you to do the same. Whether dating, engaged, or married for thirty years, I believe the only way to make love stay is to treat it right. I’m not encouraging you to go broke on expensive dinners and romantic getaways. Instead, guys, buy your girl some flowers for no further reason other than to say, “Hey, I love you.” Ladies, make your guy a nice dinner. (I believe in the adage, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” It’s true of women, too.) Or—one of Jake’s favorites—I buy him some good local beer.

I made Jake go shoe-shopping with me yesterday, and I later thanked him profusely for putting up with my explicit girl-ness. He replied, “I don’t care what we’re doing, as long as I’m with you.”  And, I suppose, as long as we always tell each other things like that, even cheap beer and pizza will feel like a romantic night out—as long as we’re together.

Thanks for the amazing dinner, babe! I can’t wait to be your wife!

Arizona · Charleston · Restaurants in AZ · Restaurants in SC

Raw Oysters at Casey Moore’s

As far as I know, I ate my first oyster at an oyster roast on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. At the time, I was a novice. I showed up, dressed up, ready to party. I didn’t realize we would be surrounded by oyster-scented mist and flying shells. I didn’t know I had to “shuck” anything. I certainly didn’t know I had to eat slimy creatures that closely resembled massive piles of snot. Most surprising, though? I loved the slimy creatures.

I soon discovered, via Pearlz on East Bay in Charleston, that I prefer oysters raw rather than roasted. (I prefer them in Oyster Shooters, too, which entails a single oyster in a shot glass of cocktail sauce and Absolute Peppar). Over the course of my two years in Charleston, I consumed more oysters than the entire land mass of the United Kingdom—where oysters are actually protected by an Act of Parliament during the spawning season.

Rumor has it oysters are aphrodisiacs. I recently read a biography of the so-called “great lover,” Casanova, by journalist Ian Kelly. (An interesting read. Made me want to go back to Venice. Check it out here.) Casanova used to eat piles of raw oysters pre-coitus, plus bottles of champagne. I don’t know much about the aphrodisiac claim. I do know that I had a craving last week that felt like pot munchies, minus the pot … and I did not hanker for Doritos; I hankered for raw oysters.

Where—in the land-locked state of Arizona—was a girl to find raw oysters? Jake took me to the grocery store, where I swore I saw some oysters, but they only had mussels. We asked the guy if we could order oysters. He priced us at over a dollar an oyster. I wasn’t that desperate. Not yet. Luckily, I did an online search, where I discovered Casey Moore’s Oyster House in Tempe.

I love Tempe, not just because it has raw oysters. I like the college town feel. I like the ASU campus. I like all the restaurants and bars spread along the two block radius of Mill Street. It feels like home to me; it feels like Athens, Ohio, in the middle of the desert. Casey Moore’s is an Irish pub—one of the most famous in Arizona, according to the website. It’s a nice little place with a dingy, dark inside bar area and a big outdoor patio covered in palm trees and umbrellas. Not classy but cute.

All I cared about were the oysters … and the Bloody Mary’s, which were excellent. I ordered a dozen oysters; nothing else. In case you’re wondering, even in a beach town like Charleston, the oysters were rarely from Charleston. The best oysters are arguably from New England, so I was okay ordering oysters in Arizona; they travel, no matter where you are.

I made my order, and then I waited. I watched the door to the kitchen, and when the little college dude brought my slimy monsters surrounded by ice chunks to our table, I wiped the drool from my chin and dug in.

How do you properly eat a raw oyster? First, you pick up the oyster on the half shell. Using the tiny fork they give you, wiggle the oyster around to make sure it is dislodged from the shell. I like to add fresh lemon juice to mine and a dash of fresh horseradish. (You only need a dash of fresh horseradish. Even when dabbling, you still get that intense burn in your nose that makes you feel like you’ve been punched in the face.) Then, open your mouth, lean the shell on your bottom lip, and pour the whole thing—oyster juice and all—down your throat. At this point, you smile, because you just consumed one of the best known delicacies on earth.

I ate my dozen oysters at Casey Moore’s. I could have had a dozen more, but I stopped myself. See, I didn’t have to panic about the lack of raw oysters in Arizona, because I have now discovered my personal oasis in the desert. I can always go back for more. You should, too, especially if you’ve never tried a raw oyster. I know they look like slimy little monsters, but they taste divine.

Restaurants in AZ

Engaging Conversation at Cibo Urban Pizzeria

There are those who love Valentine’s Day and those who shiver with dread the second week of February. I’ve always been lukewarm about it. I like (love) roses, I’m a chocolate addict, and it’s fun to go out to dinner—especially at a romantic place like Cibo Urban Pizzeria. That said Valentine’s Day is not very fun when you’re single, but well, after this Valentine’s Day, I will never be single again … Because I’m engaged to be married.

Beneath the shimmering trees of Cibo Urban Pizzaria.
I’m a big fan of pizza—especially gourmet pizza, which is exactly what you’ll find at downtown Phoenix’s Cibo Urban Pizzeria. Cibo (pronounced “CHEE-boh”) is located in the historic part of downtown. The restaurant is situated inside a restored 1913 bungalow. The front yard dining area is covered in trees, adorned with white lights and illuminated plastic grapes. When sitting beneath the shadow of the old bungalow, you can see the Phoenix skyscrapers and the sunset, all in one glance. It is the most beautiful restaurant in downtown Phoenix.

Jake, who I’ve always recognized as romantic, suggested we celebrate our Valentine’s Day evening at Cibo. We got the perfect table, right beneath a spindly, old tree, with an ideal view of skyscrapers and bright pink clouds above a sinking sun. We went all out—the full three courses, plus a bottle of Italian pinot noir. Once completely saturated with mozzarella, fresh vegetables, spicy sausage pizza, and a Nutella/mascarpone crepe, I felt relaxed and overjoyed with my stupendously hot boyfriend.

Jake was the first to realize the tree behind me was not lit, and as the sun sank beneath the horizon, the front yard of Cibo’s tiny bungalow grew dark. First, Jake asked a waitress to get the tree lit behind me. Second, he asked the water girl. Finally, he inspected the tree himself. Ever the engineer, he miraculously brought the tree to life via an unplugged cord. He sat down, seemingly quite pleased with himself, and asked for the check.

As I admired the glittering lights in the tree above my head, Jake signed the bill. I reached across the table and took his hand. Then, he said, “Now, you’re not going to freak out. Okay?” I couldn’t move—I don’t think I even breathed—as he reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a little black box. He set the black box on the table in front of me, opened it, and said, “Will you grow old with me?”

The Ring of Power.
I totally freaked out. I was blinded by the glittering thing in the black box, and I was equally blinded by how handsome my boyfriend looked in the candlelight. I was overtaken by the realization that this was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I squeezed out a clear “Yes” before evaporating into tears and hand-flapping. Jake caught my hand long enough to stick the ring on my finger before I sprang up and kissed every inch of his face.

I’m pretty sure the other couples at Cibo thought he’d broken up with me, until the bling went all a-twinkle on my left hand. Thankfully, Jake had already paid the bill. He grabbed my hand, and we escaped into the darkness of 5th Avenue, Phoenix, while I kissed him and hugged him him and kissed him and melted teary mascara down my face through the torrents of “I love you, I love you, I love you …”

Not only was this the best Valentine’s Day of my life, but this was the best day of my life. I’ve since learned that Jake did not want to propose on Valentine’s Day, because everyone expects a proposal on Valentine’s Day. I am not everyone; I was shocked. I think Jake even shocked himself, but he admitted on the car ride home that it couldn’t be avoided—Cibo was the perfect place to do it, on the perfect night, at the perfect moment.

Today, I still can’t stop staring at the twinkling diamond on my finger. I can’t stop practicing the words: “my fiancé, Jake.” The fairy tale has come true.

Initially, this was supposed to be a restaurant review of Cibo Urban Pizzeria. That was before I got engaged beneath the drooping trees, sitting at the crooked table. That was before I realized a simple, romantic dinner at Cibo would change my life. This isn’t a restaurant review. It is a review, written in commemoration of a night I will never forget. It lives on forever in words, in my heart, and now, in yours as well. Happy belated Valentine’s Day to you! Happy engagement to me and my Jake.

Me and the man of my dreams.
Arizona · Entertainment in AZ · Restaurants in AZ


The Old Town shops Mural by Joe Sorren.

I love Flagstaff. I don’t want you to feel like I’m cramming a bunch of information down your throat, but, well, I am. Last weekend, Jake and me and our buddy Randy headed to Flagstaff. Randy had a softball tournament, but that was really the least of our concerns. We were really there to see the city. And get out of the Phoenix heat. So, similar to my Ignite Phoenix blog post, I’m going to use the item 1, 2, 3, etc, formula and tell you about the heavenly place that is Flagstaff, Arizona.

1) The City. Flagstaff is about three and a half hours north of us, right near the Grand Canyon. It’s a mountain town, famous for its skiing and snowboarding. It’s also a college town. Home to Northern Arizona University, you can smell the college kids and their microbrew hangovers. In fact, Flagstaff felt a helluva lot like Athens, Ohio, where I went to school at Ohio University. It’s hilly. It’s green. The weather is to die for, and the main objective is to eat, drink, and be merry. It’s a lot smaller than I expected. Jake and I drove around the city for about ten minutes, and I had it all figured out. I knew my way around, because like I said, it felt like Athens. And after dealing with the SPRAWL of Phoenix, it felt like home. I didn’t want to leave. I liked the quaintness. I liked the cooler temps and the longed-for greenery. Plus, there’s a train track that runs along the edge of the downtown historic district, and I’ve always found something comforting about the sound of a train whistle.

2)  The Food. I’d like to talk about THREE food/drink destinations in Flag.

Late for the Train Cafe. It’s a coffee shop in the historic district on San Francisco Street. It’s tiny inside. There’s not much space for hanging out with your cup o’ Joe. But hell, the coffee is so good, who cares? I ordered the Fireman’s Mocha. There was actually a warning that said the stuff wasn’t kid-safe. So of course, I had to have it. It’s a Habanero Hot Cocoa (cocoa with New Mexico chili spices, vanilla, and almond) with two shots of espresso added. It’s spicy!!!! Spicy coffee??! Superb.

Diablo Burger. The Blake and The Vitamin B.
Diablo Burger. Okay, so I found it in the Frommer’s Guide. Don’t judge me. Frommer’s called it “the quintessential hole in the wall.” It was in a strange location, built behind a mural (more on this later) inside a parking garage support column. The sign is simple and small. And the food? You know how when you’re drunk, everything tastes like a gourmet meal? Well, this is the same way, only you don’t have to be drunk. But by the end of the meal, you kind of feel like you are, because you’re so damn happy about life. I wanted to hug the guy behind the bar, who was super cool, by the way. The food is local, and the servers were more like friends than employees. I had The Blake: homemade hatch chile mayo, roasted green chiles, and sharp cheddar. Jake had the Vitamin B: bacon, beet, and blue cheese. Everything is served medium rare, and they even brand their English muffin buns with a “db.” So freakin’ cool. Best burger I’ve had out west.

Pato Thai Restaurant. Best dang Thai food in my life, and I say that with no hesitation. Also located on San Francisco Street (about twenty feet from Late for the Train) is this TREASURE of THAI. At this point on Saturday, we’d been eating all day. I wasn’t that hungry, but I ordered the Pad Thai. Jake ordered curry. The waitress asked about spice level. I said 3 out of 5. Jake said 4 out of 5. Our food was ready within about three minutes, literally. The Pad Thai was filled with flavor, and the 3 level of spice almost put me over the edge. Jake’s level 4 curry, although creamy and rockin’ out with a coconut finish, was HOT HOT HOT! But it was so delicious, I couldn’t stop stealing bites. I was sweating by the end of dinner, and I thought we were going to have to take Jake to the damn hospital. Still, I’ve been all over the country, and I’ve never had Thai food like I had in Flagstaff, Arizona.

A piece of the mural by Joe Sorren.
3) The Mural, by Joe Sorren, and The Book, by Matthew Henry Hall. So as I mentioned above, Diablo Burger is located behind a mural. (See picture at top.) The mural, even before I fell in love with the restaurant, was love-worthy. It’s weird looking. The people have big heads, and they’re swimming in a Monet-esque swamp setting. It reminded me vaguely of the Tim Burton version of James and the Giant Peach. But I didn’t understand it. I stared at it for awhile. Being a writer, I came up with some fun stories of my own, but I still wanted to know more. So when we headed to Diablo Burger, I asked the owner man to tell me about the mural. He handed me a children’s book, and well … The book is called The Veridic Gardens of Effie Leroux. It’s a fictional account of Effie’s life, and as muralist Joe Sorren admits in the intro, the book followed the mural, not the other way around. The story in the book is a strange one, about a liberal young woman, fighting for female sexuality and rights in the early 1900s. The book does not give away much; it leaves much to be imagined. Most importantly, it discusses Effie’s “Veridic Gardens.” From the book: “After years of wondering what I should do—and how I should live my life—trying out various social theories as if summer dresses—I realized the only place that I feel free is in the presence of unfettered nature. To then preserve such spaces, to leave them open to all people and animals, to all insects and plants and stones, became my calling.” It’s a beautiful pairing. A cool little story. Such a pleasure to take home.

You may have guessed by now: I love Flagstaff. I plan to go back as often as I can. Although my “look” didn’t fit too well in a mountain town (I wear high heels; I was the only girl wearing high heels; seriously), my heart fit just fine. Plus, it’s never bad getting away from the 113 degree heat of Phoenix, is it?

Arizona · Entertainment in AZ · Music · Restaurants in AZ

Best Little Coffee-Beer-Wine House in West Valley

In our quest to find homey, happy places with a good booze selection in the West Valley, Jake and I stumbled upon Ground Control Coffee. It’s only about a block from our house, and a friend suggested it. I had trouble not singing the David Bowie song, and I was a little concerned at its location in Litchfield Park—next to Burger King in a shopping center at Litchfield and Indian School—but don’t let that detract you. Ground Control is a cool, cool place, and I’m very lucky to have it so close!

Ground Control Coffee. Go around Burger King to find it!
Ground Control Coffee is home to four of my favorite things: live music, coffee, specialty beer, and scotch, scotch, scotch, I love scotch, get in my tummy. Well, you get the idea. It’s snazzy inside! Nice, dim mood lighting. Local art on the walls. Pleasant live jazz tunes, played on acoustic guitar and piano. And the staff is absolutely excellent. They are helpful, knowledgeable, and funny.  At Ground Control, I am free to use my offbeat, occasionally inappropriate humor, and no one looks at me like I’m nuts! They even reciprocate. Like I said, though, it’s their knowledge that matters. They know the beer, wine, liquor, and food. Oh, yes, didn’t I mention? They serve food, too!

I guess I better talk about Ground Control in the daytime first. They serve coffee, custom-blended by the Ground Control staff and sold in-house and available on their website to take home with you. Some highlights for me, since I do love my dark roasts: “Afterburner” (smoky, smoky, smoky), “Eureka” (ideal for espresso), and “Sumatra Mandheling” (spice!). A perfect side to your steaming cup of yum? They serve gelato. Mmmmmmmmm …

So I’ve mentioned the setting, people, and daytime goodness. What about the BEER and WINE? The beer selection is glorious. Whatever you want, they have it. I’m partial to an IPA they have on draft, but they also carry variations of porter, pilsner, and even framboise. Their extensive wine collection includes—but is certainly not limited to—sparkling (they carry one of my favorite Proseccos), Gewurtzraminer and Viognier (the best white wines on the market), tons of Bordeaux blends (try one with the chocolate gelato), and a Guigal Chateauneuf de Pape that’ll rock your weekend. They also have a full liquor selection, including a wide variety of my favorite sippers: scotch and tequila. For more info, visit the Ground Control Coffee, Litchfield Park, website at

So there. You see? There are cool things to do in the Phoenix West Valley. Hey, Scottsdale, Tempe, and CenPho—head my way. Let’s go to Ground Control Coffee. I’ll meet you there!

Restaurants in AZ

Café Poca Cosa: A Must Eat in Tucson

This past weekend, I got the chance to visit Tucson. There were plenty of trifles to treasure, including meeting Jake’s family for the first time and a black and orange, raging thunderstorm over the desert on the drive home. There was also plenty to eat, and among those places was Café Poca Cosa.

I had already been told about this place by a Phoenix real estate agent. She said I had to eat at Café Poca Cosa. Honestly, I don’t think she was giving me an option; I think she was giving me an order—an order that, in hindsight, I was happy to accept.

Café Poca Cosa is located in downtown Tucson on East Pennington Street. It’s a random restaurant on a somewhat deserted street, vacant of other restaurants. Upon entrance, it felt like we were in the middle of some hip artist’s frontal lobe. I glanced outside. Nope, we hadn’t been teleported to a Frida Kahlo painting. We were still in the desert, still in Tucson. Yet, the inside felt so … warm. Comforting. Stylish. Red. It felt like a place I would love, and I did, as soon as I sat at the bar, waiting for a table.

“You two want to get drunk?” a cheerful, attractive Mexican woman chirped at Jake and me. I laughed, but for a second, I thought, With the overabundance of expensive tequila over your shoulder? Would LOVE to, lady. I would soon learn, this lady was the owner and chef—Suzana Davila. We were escorted to our table. And yeah, I had a margarita at 1 PM.

I LOVE this painting.
So the way it works at Café Poca Cosa: the menu changes twice daily. There are no “menus” to look at. (Well, there’s a drink menu, but with all that tequila, there had to be a drink menu). Instead, there is a chalkboard. Your server will bring a chalkboard to the table and tell you about the options of the day. Me being 1) a Midwesterner 2) a previous habitant of the Lowcountry, this Mexican food was foreign to me. I know about enchiladas, tacos, burritos…but outside of the norm, I’m a lost puppy. So, of course, I went with the Plato Poca Cosa—three dishes from the chalkboard, chosen at random by the chef.

I have no idea what I ate.

I know it was straight out of my wildest dreams.

One of the dishes had pineapple. There was steak and tomatoes to the left.  OH! I recognized a Mole sauce on chicken. And as I mentioned, I recognized the tequila in my fancy margarita glass. Other than that, beats me. What I do know? It was amazing. Every bite. Every morsel. Every dish.

Café Poca Cosa is a place you just gotta see to believe. The ambiance is sensual and delightful. The margaritas will put you on the floor. The food made me wanna do a little dance down the streets of downtown Tucson. And Suzana Davila was a chick I hope I meet again someday. In fact, I’d love to buy her a drink.

You have to go. Not a pleasant suggestion; that’s an order.