The Phoenix metropolitan area is truly fascinating, rapidly becoming Los Angeles in everything from freeways and sprawl to a city so focused on suburbs that now has re-connected with its actual downtown core years later.
Often when people imagine Phoenix, they actually imagine the cactus and palm tree landscapes of the resorts in Scottsdale. Scottsdale interesting enough, is a virtual miniature clone of the entire Phoenix area, with diverse pockets from Old Town to luxury resorts to regular suburbia to rural Taliesin West (Frank Lloyd Wright’s western home) to our focus today, the East 5th Ave. shopping neighborhood. East 5th, Stetson Dr., and Scottsdale Road create a three road ring of sorts with this region inside of it. The shops sell mostly upscale western gifts for the tourists who wander a few blocks from the much more touristy, over the top, western Disneyland-Cheesecake Factory excess of Old Town Scottsdale just to the east along Scottsdale Road.
This time of the year with Spring Training, the area seems like its San Francisco East with all of the Giants fans, including yours truly, in town. The E. 5th Ave Shopping Area is fascinating, with a touch of that touristy old west excess, combined with a little high class European influence, and some sleek cosmopolitan modern designs.
Fortunately for diners, food happens to be the heart of this shopping district.
Anchoring a prominent spot in the center of this ring at Stetson and E. 5th is the eclectic, funky, refined Cowboy Ciao, whose name is a perfect representation of the culinary mash-up served. The Stetson Chopped Salad and mushroom stir-fry are as legendary in the area as Chris Bianco’s pizzas. Along Stetson next door to Cowboy Ciao on both Stetson and E. 5th is the emerging empire of chef Charleen Badman and co-owner/wine guru Pavle Milic, anchored by the outstanding bistro FnB on the Stetson side. FnB’s braised leeks with mustard bread crumbs, and mozzarella, and a fried egg has acquired mythical status, and deservedly so, but I still can’t get the mussels in fish sauce with harissa or the homey chicken with spaetzle out of my head. On E. 5th, the team now have just opened a new market called Bodega, a wine bar focusing on Arizona wines called Arizona Wine Merchants, and a charming cafe for lunch, Baratin. The group reflects the neighborhood perfectly, with a focus on everything local, a touch of sophistication, and a slight flair for the old west.
Sticking with wine bars, Kazimierz World Wine Bar resides next to FnB on Stetson. Across the way on Stetson the Old West turns into the New West with the sleek, modern SouthBridge complex, including its Casablanca Lounge, along the riverwalk style revamped Arizona Canal. Continue the loop to E. 5th St., with gallery after gallery after shop, and you’ll find the Scottsdale outpost of the exceptional Tempe based coffee roaster and shop Cartel, who makes an espresso on par with the giants of Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles. This Cartel shop, one of 4 in Arizona, happens to also have a shockingly impressive wine and beer list (Oskar Blues, Green Flash at a coffee shop?!), and a very satisfying hot chocolate too on the two days of the year its cold like during my visit.
Kitty corner to Cartel is Citizen Public House, run by the former chef of Cowboy Ciao, Bernie Kantak. Everything is spectacular, particularly that same chopped salad from Cowboy Ciao that made the trip across the street to the pork belly pastrami over spaetzle (what’s with this area and spaetzle?) that marries German influence with barbeque to desserts by Tracy Dempsey, again formerly of Cowboy Ciao. Again, the atmosphere is charming with a touch of old west and Manhattan sophistication, like the neighborhood.
The stunning centerpiece of this neighborhood is just outside the ring at E. 5th and Marshall. The traffic circle there rings around a central fountain, just like you might find in Paris or London…except this being Scottsdale, instead of Napoleon or Charles V., the fountain boats sprinting mustangs. This is the Old West after all. Except the Old West never tasted as good as those braised leeks at FnB.