After a few glorious days (see Part 1 of this story here), our next stop was to visit the “Masters of the Desert,” which can be found in the Greater Mesa area and on the Fresh Foodie Trail.
The master is a reference to the Hohokam culture that built an extensive desert irrigation system in the area about 1300- 1500 AD. Impressive work, with canals over 20 miles long that helped grow corn, cotton, beans and squash! The Hohokam are believed to be descendants of the Pima tribe and in Pima Hohokam means “all used up or exhausted.” Digging this network of irrigation systems would be exhausting.
Interesting that we had just made the three hour drive from the small agriculture community of Willcox Arizona (Southeast corner Arizona) to arrive in another farming community within the Greater Phoenix Metropolitan area.
Our first stop was at Queen Creek Olive Mill. First question we asked was it easy to plant over 7,000 olive trees? That is what owners Brenda and Perry Rae did after they sold their auto parts store in Detroit in 1998. Also not sure if it was easy to bring their four small children with one more child on the way.
Before the first tree was planted, Perry traveled to some of the popular olive growing areas to pick the brains of the experts. First to California, then to Italy, and all the experts said Arizona would be prefect since the trees thrive in warm climates. Also the low humidity means fewer bug issues and pollination is helped along with only a little rain in the spring.
Brenda and Perry have become two of only 20 certified extra virgin sommeliers, so there was a lot to learn from the staff. We started with the Robust Extra Virgin Olive Oil and enjoyed the strongest flavors that one finds in the early harvest olives. Great for dipping bread! However, my favorite was their Blood Orange Olive Oil with a light fruit nose. This is makes the best marinade for grilling chicken, which we found at their Italian influenced Eatery, located in the massive market.
We briefly met with daughter Sydney Rea, marketing director, as she rolled out her favorites: Warmed Olives (with red peppers and garlic), Bruschettas- with three delicious samples. Favorite one? Avocado Bacon with peach white balsamic reduction. We could not eat it all and knew a return visit was on our list.
We were ready for the next agriculture stop right across the street. Schnepf Farms is located on over 300 acres. Sitting on his tractor, third generation owner Mark Schnepf welcomed us to the farm. Mark then jumped off the tractor and told us join him for a ride in his quad as we tried to cover the 300 acre farm in 45 minutes. Mark told us how his granddad purchased this land in 1941 and then Mark’s dad took advantage of the fertile soil to grow all sorts of crops.
Mark was still beaning with joy from the yearly family Pumpkin & Chili Party, with over 100,000 visitors (almost month long) enjoying train rides, hayrides, rollercoaster, carousel, and the flying farmers ride. One of the highlights is Hillbilly Bob’s Pig Races. Another is the Zombie Paint Ball Battle. Hungry guests could find nourishment at three food stops: the Main Grill, Farm Grill and Burger Shack. And, like many fall farm festivals, there is a corn maze. However, you probably won’t find one as unique as Schnepf’s. Each year the maze is made in the likeness of a celebrity, who is then invited for the Grand Opening. Former great boxer, and frequent visitor to the farm, Muhammad Ali was honored with a corn maze portrait in 2008.
Mark and his wife (Carrie) and kids are all involved with the farm. Mark does have more time than he used to when he was the first mayor of Queen Creek in 1989 and stayed in office for the next 11 years. The farm has festivals year around and over 100 weddings. The farm received an honor from the Governor in 2006 when it was designated as an “Arizona Treasure.” Yes it is!
There were other places we could have stopped in Queen Creek, but we had to check out the new happenings at Agritopia. Just a 25 minute drive to the northwest of Queen Creek and south of Mesa, this special community is located in Gilbert. We had visited Agritopia on our last trip, and were excited to see what changes and additions they have made.
Owner Joe Johnson and his three brothers grew up on the property when his dad farmed this rich agricultural land. Over the years urban development started to engulf their farm. Joe hated the thought of losing the farm and was certainly a visionary. He used his engineering expertise to work with architects and land planners in Gilbert to develop his village, Agritopia.
Farming remains the backbone of Agritopia with 11 acres of certified organic farmland, growing artichokes, olives, tomatoes and much more. These vegetable are used by local restaurants and, of course, the on-site Joe’s Farm Grill.
The community is made up of over 450 homes, spread out over 160 acres and with Joe in charge you can be assured this is not your typical development. The architectural style reflects the diversity of the residents, from small cottages perfect for a single or couple to the Generations Senior Living community, an assisted care and independent living residence. There are trails leading to the farmland, local schools, playgrounds, parks, and of course coffee shops and restaurants. All the houses have front porches, which encourages the community feel.
We spent most of the time on this visit at Barnone which includes twelve local small businesses, including winery and tasting room Garage-East. Although the winery has only been in business since last year, the winemakers have many years of experience. Winemakers Todd and Kelly Bostock have vineyards in Sonoita Arizona and have been winemakers since 2002. The other partners in Garage-East are Brian and Megan Ruffentine. It is a friends and family enterprise as Megan had gone to school with the Bostock’s.
Brian is really excited about some of the new blends that have been released. All of the wines sold at Garage-East are from Arizona grapes. Next up was the Tempranillo (Willcox AVA) a nice red with a rich, but not heavy taste. Brian offered us more wines but we had one more visit in Mesa.
It was a surprise to find bountiful crops in the middle of the Valley of the Sun (120 F at times for summer) and winter lows at times in the upper 30’s and the important challenge of water. Miracle in the desert? True Garden Urban Farm uses vertical aeroponics to provide this bounty in the desert. The vertical growing towers are lined with planting pouches made of a natural rock fiber (volcanic rock which is great for water retainage) built on top of a 25 gallon tank for a mix of water and natural mineral solutions. The pump sends the solution to the top of the tower and it slowly drips down to soak the plants This closed system recycles water and minerals, and so uses 95% less water that a typical garden.
Aeroponics vs hydroponics? Aeroponics is the process of growing plants in an air mist environment and in hydroponics the plants are grown in a medium of water, sand, and gravel. Owner Troy Albright (along with his wife Lisa) has experience coming from the combination of growing up on a farm in Minnesota and his training as a pharmacist. He also owns RxFormulations which is a compounding pharmacy that uses natural hormones and a holistic approach.
The holistic approach came to be when his daughter was born with a skin condition and Troy changed her diet to all organic, which had a very positive effect. In developing True Garden, Troy also worked with Tim Blank, who had worked NASA to design a greenhouse to be used in space. He was then hired by Disneyworld to create vertical farming at Epcot Center.
The highlight of our visit was walking in the climate controlled oasis greenhouse while grazing on fresh. basil, kale, arugula, sage and my favorite, chocolate mint. Aeroponics produces a wide variety of fruits, herbs, greens, tomatoes and lettuce that are more nutrient dense than those grown by traditional means. And we can certainly testify that the taste is clean and strong.
We really enjoyed our non-stop day of enjoying wholesome and fresh foods in the Greater Mesa area, but time did not permit visiting an interesting sounding dairy farm, which boasted a “pizza farm.” Another great reason for a return visit. I wonder if the pizza farm has deep dish?
We had no problem relaxing that evening and in the morning we were ready for breakfast at one of Mesa’s favorite spots, T.C. Eggington’s. Elizabeth had the Eggington Omelet with chicken, mushrooms, broccoli, cream cheese and blanket of hollandaise. We also enjoyed their famous Blueberry Hill pancakes. I really enjoyed The Glory Omelet with marinated tomatoes, cilantro, avocado and red onion with egg whites. Many folks assume egg whites look and taste bland, but these were delicious. T.C. Eggington also has a sister restaurant in the heart of the Tempe – Ncounter, which we were lucky enough to enjoy later that day. We were now properly fueled to enjoy some hiking in Tempe so we headed out to the Arizona State University (ASU) campus.
A 15-minute drive to the northwest found us ready to hike up Tempe Butte also called Hayden Butte or “A Mountain” which is what many students from the campus call it. There is a big A (short for ASU) painted in gold colors on the top the highest point in Tempe, 1398 feet (rock is andesite butte -volcanic). Color is important as during rival games with Oregon Ducks, Oregon students have been known to paint their green color on the A. We hope this is being done in good form.
This was a quick hike covering less than 2 miles round trip and 255 foot elevation gain. From the top there were great views of Salt River and Camelback Mountain.
After this hike we could not resist walking across the street to NCounter. They serve brunch all day long, so it was a two omelet day for me. I was tempted to order a Bloody Mary but we still had some more hiking to do, as well as beer sampling later in the day. They were also baking fresh cinnamon rolls which were very tempting to indulge in but a hike was waiting, so we had to settle for the delicious aroma.
After a short walk we arrived at Tempe Beach Park, which has more than five miles of trails along Tempe Town Lake. The lake was created in 1999 by damming a portion of the dry bed of the Salt River and adding water. Brilliant!!
While hiking, we saw boats on the lake with folks fishing. We thought about renting a boat to fish this stocked lake. However we continued our walking and went past the Tempe Center for the Arts, a beautiful building with plenty activities for all.
After this walk in the park we were ready for some refreshments so took the short walk to Pedal Haus Brewery, located in downtown Tempe adjacent to the ASU campus. They correctly advertise having award winning brews and a beautiful outdoor patio. My sampler included the Light Lager and Kölsch which delivered the fresh light taste that I like. However my favorite was the Bière Blanche which is a wheat beer served with Moroccan Orange Peel & Coriander. Very nice zestful taste! My wife’s favorite was easy, Double IPA, which had a nice “hoppy bite” with 96 International Bitterness Units (IBUs). To compare, the Pilsner, which I prefer, is in the 10 to 20 range while an IPA generally has 70 or higher. My wife says “the higher, the better so bring it on!” We also shared a delicious hummus tray, with pita and raw vegies. The hummus we had paired really well with both the Pilsner and IPA.
On our way out we saw all of the bikes in the rack. Looks like a popular destination for bicyclers, which we may try next time. We had one more brewery to check out so we walked around the campus to burn off some calories. After that went to our car to drive to Four Peaks Brewing Company in Tempe, just ½ mile from the ASU campus.
The brewery is located in a historic red brick building dating back to 1892 which was originally an ice plant, then a creamery, then a recording studio, and now a brew pub – some of the best things in life! The classy building is now a cozy place to enjoy the namesake beer of their address, 8th Street Pale Ale, which is a lightly hopped (21 IBUs) beer with a nice caramel malt flavor. We also really liked their White Ale which is lighter Belgian Style Witbier beer brewed with locally sourced Sonoran White Wheat. It has a nice zest of orange peel which gives it a fresh crisp finish. Peach Ale was a unique treat, a light golden ale infused with Arizona peaches. My wife hit the jackpot with Hopsquatch, a hearty and hoppy barlywine with 100 IBUs and an ABV of 11.0 %. Definitely a beer to savor slowly!
The 8th Street Brewery has a large menu of pub food – salads, pizza, sandwiches, burgers, etc. We chose the Veggie Pizza featuring fresh local portabella, spinach, zucchini, and feta and mozzarella cheese with a pesto sauce. Enjoying the ale and excellent pizza was a great way to conclude a very fun and busy day. On the way to our hotel we were on a hill with a view to the east - northeast and a view of the four peaks that inspired the brewery’s name. Part of the Maztzal Mountains and in the Tonto National Forest, this area is only one of two places in the world that produces the most beautiful dark purple high-quality amethyst. A pretty ambitious hike, but we did see advertisements for helicopter tours. Another entry on our “next trip” list.
We started early the next morning at the Phoenix Public Market Café, adjacent to the ASU Phoenix campus and Roosevelt Row District. Trish of Visit Phoenix organized our meeting to plan our one day in Phoenix. We started with fresh roasted coffee, pumpkin bread, fresh cherry gourmet pop tarts, and cranberry macarons. You know you’re on vacation when breakfast comes with appetizers!
We enjoyed these special treats on the sunny patio while visiting with Executive Pastry Chef Sarah Chisholm who leads a team of cooks in the largest gourmet bakery in downtown Phoenix. Her first love was being a professional ballerina, a career cut short by a fractured leg. That was a sad event and most likely a tough time in her life, but she has moved on to perfect the art of pastries. The owner, Aaron Chamberlain, was always in the restaurant industry starting as a dishwasher when he was a young teen and then continuing to a culinary education in San Francisco at the age of 19. He has worked under noted chefs in major cities and now has two very popular restaurants in Phoenix.
For our second course we looked at the breakfast menu (served daily from 7am to 3pm). I had to try the Devil's Mess: scrambled eggs with spinach, Schreinier Chorizo (local and excellent), chili, onions, and fire roasted salsa. It really wasn’t a mess – but this devil had a kick! This tasty and hardy breakfast did fire me up and I was ready for today’s action.
We spent the next several hours walking in the historic Roosevelt Row, which is an art district and one of the most interesting walking neighborhoods in Phoenix. Located near the Arizona School for the Arts, the district is highlighted by beautiful and compelling murals on many of the buildings. Among the murals you will find galleries, bistros, cafés, live music venues, and specialty shops.
Next we walked past the Short Leash Hotdogs + Rollover Doughnuts and had to stop in. We had checked out their food truck on our last visit and I remember how much I liked their Chicago Style Hot Dog. Judging from their website, the food trucks are pretty popular at wedding receptions. Obviously after the breakfast we had just had, we were not going to be eating anything, but the aromas of the fresh baked brioche donuts were terrific.
We also made another addition to the “next trip” list – The Wurst Festival Ever is held on National Hotdog Day. The festival includes performances by local comics, chef appearances, hotdogs, brews, and even a Pun Contest. Obviously puns are important to the festival creators. The webpage for the festival declares: “Let’s be frank, this is the wurst idea we ever had.” However, the hot dogs are the best.
We continued on our walk in the Roosevelt Row district to Mother Bunch Brewing for lunch and beers. It has a wonderful and enjoyable atmosphere featuring lots open space and bright murals.
The Mother IPA was a big hit! Nice hoppy bite with a clean citrus finish. I really enjoyed the Pumpkin Wit, done in the tradition I like, Belgian Witbier, with just a light pumpkin taste. I also enjoyed their Kölsch with the typical light taste. The smells from the kitchen of burgers and nachos were delightful, but we were still full from our breakfast extravaganzas so we went light with the lentil soup, which was delicious and paired really well with the beer.
There is a new trend of women head brewers and Mother Bunch’s Julie Meeker is one of them. Julie started experimenting with home brewing as soon as she was of legal drinking age. She and her husband Jimmy McBride opened Mother Bunch 2014, and it has quickly become a Phoenix favorite. Julie’s personal favorite is McBride’s Irish Red – a dry hoppy amber with a caramel finish. We will learn about other women in the brewing when we visit Leah Huss of Huss Brewing later in the trip.
Beer has come a long way since prohibition. Arizona Brewing was the first brewery that opened after prohibition and they have withstood changes of ownership, financial problems, and a firebomb plot of the brewery facility. The brewery eventually was sold to national firm in 1964.
Before we checked out more breweries it was time for some light flying action at the famous Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. In the fall and spring one must see the “Mighty Monarchs and the Plant Protectors” exhibit. The 3,200 foot butterfly room must have had 1000’s of these colorful insects feasting and fluttering. Great pains are taken to keep the room at a controlled temperature and humidity and the doors are “guarded” to limit the amount people coming in and avoid any butterflies from leaving. The double closure doors are successful in keeping them from flying out, but each visitor is also checked in case they have a small hitch-hiker on their shoulders or back. Since the butterflies have no awareness of things like walk-ways, guests are all cautioned to watch carefully before they step.
After this exhibit we wandered the five different trails to view the diversity of desert plants and my favorite was the Harriet Maxwell Desert Wildflower Loop with the bright flower colors intermingled with the cactus. We continued to see the saguaro standing so tall (they can grow to 60 feet with weights of up to 4,800 pounds.)
One of the highlights on the way out was the famous glass sculpture works of Dale Chihuly (on right). Many of his works have been on display over the years. The garden also boasts of many other activities including lectures, art exhibits, concerts and dinners. We could have stayed longer but it was time to visit yet another brewery and since we had been wondering around in the desert sun for several hours, we were looking forward to it.
Five minutes from the garden we went past Papago Park and were very tempted to check out some of the ten hikes offered there. However our immediate mission was to cool off with some refreshments from Huss Brewing Company and within a short 15 minute drive we arrived at their uptown Phoenix locations.
Owned by Jeff and Leah Huss, the brewery is following the trend of husband and wife owned breweries and the active leadership of women in the brewing business. Leah had been part owner of a brewery in Scottsdale and Jeff had been head brewer at BJ’s Restaurant in Chandler Arizona before they started Huss in 2013. Once childhood sweethearts, they now pair their skills making Huss one of the fastest growing local breweries.
For starters I really enjoyed the Scottsdale Blonde which is done in the German Kölsch style. This is their flagship, award-winning beer with a light finish. However my favorite was the Orange Blossom Ale with a light citrus nose. It is also the second bestselling local beer in the state.
My wife is Ms. IPA so went right for the Copper State IPA, a dry, hoppy beer with a tropical fruit essence and a clean finish. Still not hungry, so we did not get a chance to try their nachos, sliders or other snacks but we heard Jeff and Leah have really paired up some great combinations.
We took the short drive to Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort and we were excited to have some free time to wander. There are many hiking trails adjacent to the property, also the nearby Phoenix Mountain Preserve and North Mountain Visitor Center. We decided to wait for the next day for that. My wife suggested that we hang out at Falls Water Village which is described as a “peaceful oasis nestled in the heart of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve”. Sitting in the sun and having a drink and snack at pool side was tempting. However relaxing in our room and enjoying the views from our room was just as relaxing. As was the short nap! After waking up we took the shuttle ride to the top of the hill (1800 feet above the base) and soon we were sitting on the patio of the Terrace Room, enjoying the sunset. We soaked in the views of North Mountains and to the east Piestewa Peak.
Our host Andra told us about Executive Chef Anthony DeMuro. He brings over 30 years culinary experience which started at the age of 15 as a dishwasher. He soon realized that the chefs had the best job. Perhaps more important were the secret recipes he learned while cooking with his mom and grandmother during the holidays.
After the sun completed the marvelous show, we went up to the dining area. The first course was oven roasted mussels served with a dash of horseradish and topped with lobster butter. This paired well with the Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. My main course was the Tomato Balsamic Infused Grilled Steak served with portobello mushrooms and roasted garlic. The tomato and balsamic flavors made the steak juicy and tasty. My wife insisted that her Confit Muscovy Duck & Ricotta Salata Ravioli was “one of the best meals she ever had.” I was going to say the same about my steak. I did take a bite of the duck and would have been happy with either entrée. I agreed with my wife that this was at the top of the “best dinners” list.
Chef DeMuro came by and chatted about desserts. The first treat was the Tahitian Vanilla Bean Crème brûlée with fresh berries.That was so light and refreshing! Then came Peanut Butter & Chocolate Mousse, made with mild chocolate and was another winner. The chef said we should thank Pastry Chef Lara Coleman who has been there for 10 years. A more than suitable meal for our last dinner on this trip to the Valley of the Sun.
We had a late morning flight to catch but I had some unfinished business to attend to: hiking in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. There are over 20 trails to pick from and I decided on Shaw Butte which is four miles roundtrip with about an 800 foot gain. The trail head is a less than 10 minute walk from the resort. There is very good signage that leads you through a tunnel under the road (7th Ave) to the trailhead at the North Mountain Visitors Center.
Our trip to the Valley of the Sun ended on a great note and we have a lot places to check out on our return trip.
About the authors:
Michael Fagin is a freelance travel writer who is currently touring much of the US West Coast enjoying the wine country, and covering the fine wines, dining, and hiking in the region. Also covering British Columbia wine country and exploring the rain forests, coastal regions, and the mountains. While he is not writing Michael is the operational meteorologist for West Coast Weather, LLC and provides custom forecast for all outdoor events from weddings to climbing mountains (from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Everest).
Elizabeth Fagin is a free-lance writer currently focusing on travel, food and wine, with her husband Michael. She has also written professionally for the Fresh Connections Blog - The Parfitt Way, which features points of interest and culture on Bainbridge Island, WA. She has been a Jewish Educator in the Seattle area for the last 25 years. Elizabeth and Michael live in Redmond, WA where they raised two kids and a number of cats.
Disclosure: Please note that food and lodging was complimentary.