the urbanist

A Curator’s Guide to Phoenix

Amazing Mexican food served in a hair salon, an R&B-funk dive bar, and contemporary Native American art.

A view of Phoenix from Hole-in-the-Rock in Papago Park. Photo: Peter Unger/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image
A view of Phoenix from Hole-in-the-Rock in Papago Park. Photo: Peter Unger/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image

It’s commonly understood that the best way to explore a new place is to go straight to the locals. Each week in the Urbanist, we take that wisdom one step further by seeking out not just locals but local experts — those who are especially well-versed in their cities’ newest and most noteworthy scenes — to give us insider recommendations. This week, we asked artist Julio César Morales, curator of the ASU Art Museum at Arizona State University, for his picks in Arizona’s capital city.

“I cannot tell you how beautiful and magical the light is when it reflects on the surrounding mountains of Phoenix. Visionary artists such as Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Fritz Scholder have been influenced and created phenomenal bodies of work after their time in Arizona. Phoenix itself is like a mirage. It’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States and becoming more and more progressive. In the past five years, we have seen a shift in leadership within the valley museums in a good way. There are more diverse exhibitions at the once stuffy Phoenix Art Museum, Scottsdale Contemporary Art Museum, and Heard Museum. It’s not just white men painting shows.”

His Other Musts


Mountain Shadows Resort. Photo: Courtesy of Phoenix Mountain Shadows

The Clarendon Hotel and Spa (401 W Clarendon Ave.; 602-252-7363) in Central Phoenix is a cool boutique hotel that’s always a favorite with artists and creative types. It has a Miami-vibe scene with brilliant swimming pool, bar, and Mexican restaurant Tranquilo. On the high-end, there’s the luxurious Mountain Shadows Resort (5445 E. Lincoln Dr.; 480-624-5400). It features an amazing gallery on the estate, John Reyes Contemporary Gallery and super lush rooms and views.”

Art Museums and Galleries

Phoenix Art Museum. Photo: Barry Winiker/Getty Images

“Since I am a curator at the ASU Art Museum (51 E. 10th St., Tempe; 480-965-2787), I am biased to tell you that is my favorite art museum in the valley. But Phoenix Art Museum (1625 N. Central Ave.; 602-257-1880) has been doing amazing work to reach local audiences with great programming, including last year’s show with the Propeller Group, an artist group from Los Angeles and Ho Chi Minh City. Scottsdale Contemporary Art Museum (7374 E 2nd St., Scottsdale; 480-874-4666) is making a comeback with diverse and phenomenal programming. Earlier this year, they hosted a show with two Mexico City artists Carla Fernández and Pedro Reyes. The Heard Museum (2301 N. Central Ave.; 602-252-8840) has been balancing historical Native American exhibition with contemporary projects. Right now, there’s a really great installation with indiginous artist Raven Chacon who works with sound. For local galleries, Lisa Sette Gallery (210 E. Catalina Dr.) has the best exhibitions with local and international artists. It’s such a beautiful gallery space. And every first Friday in the Roosevelt Row Arts District in downtown Phoenix, you will find 10,000 people wandering around independent gallery spaces. The Dressing Room, Taco Chelo, or The Lost Leaf are great places to grab a drink or meet up before First Fridays, which goes from 6 to 11 p.m. The city closes down all the streets and you can venture into these shipping containers that are pop-up galleries — sometimes they’re showing video or sculpture or just an experience — and other galleries like monOrchid (214 E. Roosevelt St.), Modified Arts (407 E. Roosevelt St.), and Eye Lounge (419 E. Roosevelt St.) galleries. Usually people start with the Roosevelt Row galleries and then make their way to Phoenix Art Museum. They have a really great first Friday. All the galleries are walking distance from it and it’s one stop away on the lightrail.”

Markets and Shops

The Hive. Photo: Courtesy of The Hive

“I always love going to the Phoenix Farmers Markets. Yes, you can grow phenomenal food in the desert! My favorite one is called the Open Air Market. It’s a couple of blocks from Roosevelt Row in front of Phoenix Public Market Café (14 E. Pierce St.) every Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon. Belinda’s Pickles is amazing. She has everything from things to make an amazing Bloody Mary to pickled beets. Proof Bread makes the best bread I’ve ever had. They use heritage grains. If you’re in search of local artwork, try The Hive (2222 N. 16th St.; 602-254-1641), which has jewelry, wearable crafts, and other accessories like silk scarves made by local artists. Other cool design places include For the People (5102 N. Central Ave.; 602-954-4009) with one of the best coffees in Phoenix, Phoenix General (5538 N. 7th St.; 602-237-6922), NOONS (2811 N. 7th Ave.; 480-620-9680), Camelback Flowershop (4214 E. Indian School Rd.; 602-840-4646, and Urbana (5027 N. 44th St.; 602-957-5066).

Local Restaurants

Welcome Diner. Photo: Google Maps

“Phoenix has more diverse restaurants than just Southwest food, I would say avoid Southwest food. For regional food with a Southern twist Welcome Diner (929 E Pierce St; 602-495-1111) is amazing, I always get the fried green-tomato sandwich that is out of this world. If you’re in the mood for very good authentic and obscure Mexican, I would go to Barrio Café Gran Reserva (1301 NW Grand Ave.; 602-252-2777) or for a quick bite La Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop (1919 N. 16th St.; 602-254-6330). At Barrio Café Gran Reserva, chef Silvana Salcido Esparza is best known for her chiles en nogada. Her restaurant also has only Mexican wine from the Baja California region. La Santisima has the best selection of salsa in Phoenix. They have like 12 different salsas you can try with your tacos. Durant’s (2611 N. Central Ave.; 602-264-5967) is a local favorite that has been serving great steaks for over 50 years. It’s an experience entering the restaurant through the kitchen and sitting in the big red velvet booths with amazing old-school martinis and awesome steaks. But the best kept secret is the remarkable food at Palabra (909 N 1st St.; 602-730-3227), which is only open on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s actually not a restaurant but rather a hair salon in the arts district of Roosevelt. The menu consists of dishes owner Jorge Ignacio Torres ate as a child that his mom cooked for his family with a contemporary spin. Sometimes his mama shows up to help with the cooking. He does an amazing translation of familiar dishes, like the chilaquiles made with blue corn, salsa verde, Oaxacan pickled vegetables, cotija cheese, and egg. There’s no chips, but the way he does the pickled vegetables replaces them. He told me it was almost impossible for him to find blue corn because he tries to source everything as authentic as possible.”

Fine Dining

Kai. Photo: Courtesy of Kai

Kai (5594 Wild Horse Pass Blvd.; 602-225-0100) at Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass focuses on indigenous cuisine and it’s probably the highest-rated restaurant in Phoenix. The food is phenomenal. The dishes are centered on local ingredients from the Gila River Indian Community. For example, escargot, wild mushrooms, and caramel goat cheese on native toast. Indian bread is really important here. It’s like a mix between a naan and a tortilla. Almost every dish has at least one ingredient that comes from indigenous cuisine, like Great Plains Bison or Tribal Buffalo. The aged Waygu steak is also mind blowing. It’s served with a native seed bean ragout, chimichurri made with pickled indigenous greens, and mulato chile.”


Char’s Has The Blues (4631 7th Ave.; 602-230-0205) is a truly loved local bar that is seriously committed to R&B and funk. You won’t find any tourists here and the drinks are strong and perfect, served in clear plastic cups. It’s a mix between a really cool dive bar and concert venue. They host the best female singers and bands in Phoenix, every Saturday night is Laydee Jai on the mic with the R&B band No Drama. They play renditions of everything from Prince to the Gap Band. People get up and dance. It’s amazing.”

Music Venues

Crescent Ballroom (308 N. 2nd Ave.; 602-716-2222) is a small concert hall and bar with great Mexican food where you can hear anything from Arizona bands like Calexico to up-and-coming British singer Bishop Briggs. I always love going to Valley Bar (130 N. Central Ave.; 602-368-3121). They have everything from poetry readings to punk bands and cumbia music. You have to enter through a dingy alleyway and go downstairs to an abyss to find this magical place that has vintage Phoenix memorabilia and a beautiful life size zoetrope floating above the bar. I have never seen tourists here; it’s mostly locals.”

Day Trip

Painted Desert. Photo: M.Torres/ Images/iStockphoto

Flagstaff is just a gem and central point for departure to Grand Canyon or other Southwest destinations. It’s a two-hour drive away and always 25 degrees cooler than Phoenix. My favorite locations include the pristine Painted Desert, which goes from the Grand Canyon National Park to the Petrified Forest National Park, and the amazing Sunset Crater Volcano. I sometimes think the Grand Canyon is overdone and you can get a similar experience at Painted Desert and Crater Volcano that’s less crowded. At Crater Volcano, you can hike on the dormant lava on the Lava Flow Trail. Lava’s Edge Trail is another great hike. It’s about two miles each way — you walk up the volcano and back down. The Painted Desert has a phenomenal visitor’s center with a mini museum of fossils and artifacts and the views of the canyon are super breathtaking, all the colors.”

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A Curator’s Guide to Phoenix