My friend Tom came up with the phrase I used to name this post a few years back and it sent me into that kind of laughter where you end up laughing at yourself for laughing so hard at something so dumb. I spent the weekend watching my beloved Chicago Cubs get trounced in Spring Training games in Mesa, Arizona. I also spent most of the weekend with a vaguely blechk feeling that came from the food in Mesa.
Now is it fair to pick on a small place in the desert like Mesa? Yes, it is. Good food can be cheap, and there's no reason even the smallest town can't have grub worth sampling (and Mesa is adjacent to Phoenix so it's not even THAT small). With few exceptions, which I'll ouline below, the food you'll get if you venture out to see the Cubs or Sox or Angels or Giants or the other Cactus League teams will be fast food dropped in a deep fryer, or dry interpretations of the original.
Has it always been this way? There are legends of diners in the middle of nowhere that somehow have perfected Apple Pie or fried chicken or the grilled cheese, but I think most of those places have gone the way of the dodo.
I'll pick on one chain location and its neighbor then give you a great place to go. Avoid the Waffle House across from the Ramada in Mesa. I have enjoyed a Waffle House in the past (in Louisville, and a Waffle Steak in indianapolis), but this one had horrible chalky wheat bread with little texture, inattentive service, and the eggs I ordered "over medium" came out with the whites barely set. It was unpleasant in the extreme. The omelette place just down from the WH, which I won't name since its a family place, wasn't much better. The omelette I ordered there came out with the egg portion wrung dry of any possible moisture. The "filling" for the omelette was pretty good and the ingredients pretty high quality. Eventually, I tired of chewing twenty times before I swallowed the egg portion and ransacked the center of the pouch for the avocado, mushroom, and jack cheese filling.
Enough negative. I found two local Mexican restaurants to be very good, though I neglected to write down either's name. Shame on me, but when we return to Mesa next year, I'll get the names and publish them on this site. [UPDATE: Luckily I have good friends who also enjoyed the restaurants and the power of Google to help me. The first place we went to was apparently called Villa Del Sol next to the Ramada on Country Club - about 1400 South. I can't find it in the phone books but that name jibes with info I've received from two friends who were there with me. The atmosphere was a bit shabby, the staff extremely pleasant and willing to banter in both English and Spanish and the green corn tamales were outstanding (as was the horchata). The second place was a tiny tiny taqueria called Alviertos where I had a West Coast fish taco with rice and bean sides for about $5 that I'd be happy with anywhere. A very small condiment bar with hot pickled carrots and jalapenos was the cherry on the proverbial cake for me.)
However, the best experience we had was not Mexican but the Four Peaks Brewery in Tempe. We found the Four Peaks online before our trip and if we hadn't researched it beforehand, we never would have stumbled on this great brewpub.
As we approached the bar, we passed a car carrier truck painted with "Desi, the Designated Driver" who promised to take you and your car home if you got too buzzed. With Four Peaks best beers clocking in at 5-6% alcohol, I'm sure Desi makes out like a bandit.
The pub itself is housed in a stone building (a former railway depot, I believe) that houses 60 barrel and 40 barrel fermenters. The inner space is dominated by the fermenters and the high ceiling, but if it's light out, you'll want to sit outside and enjoy the sun and the attractive waitstaff.
Three of us ordered two appetizers and three entrees all together, which was a mistake. The appetizers are huge as are the entrees. I found the spinach artichoke dip to be a little thick, but it was delicious. The Thai-spice hummus was very much like a red pepper hummus with harissa stirred in. Both went well with pita wedges and multicolored corn chips.
My entree was a vegetarian portabella beer bread that appeared at first to be a sliced burrito, but which had a taste and texture different from a burrito and satisfying. There was maybe too much cheese or oil used to sautee the vegetables, but it was the best thing I had over four days in the Mesa area. Though I wanted to, I couldn't come close to finishing it after the appetizers and the magnificent beers.
The big attraction at a brewpub is local beer. We all ordered the beer sampler and got a tray each of beers in highball-sized glasses. You can read about each of the beers here. I was not a fan of the Arizona Peach, but I thought the Kiltlifter, Oatmeal Stout, Eighth Street Ale, and HopKnot IPA were top notch. The Raj IPA reminded me of Boston's Harpoon ale, which I like a lot at first and then have to put down for about a year. We didn't get to try the Hefewiezen, but I'm eager to find it now. Of all the beers, the Kiltlifter, a Scottish-Style ale, was my favorite and I forced down a pint of it on top of the sampler before we left.
They're making great beer in Arizona and for the hop-o-phile, Four Peaks should be on your list.
1340 East 8th Street #104
Tempe, Arizona 85281
Alivertos Mexican Food
263 W University Dr Mesa, AZ
Villa Del Sol