This weekend I found myself on Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona, I wish I could say I was drinking at the bars with all the cool kids, but alas, I am just 20. I strolled the street on a quiet Sunday morning, taking photos of all the local businesses I have been to and have only heard of.
Mill Avenue is comparable to University Drive in Tucson, although I won’t begin to compare the two because I don’t want to fuel any sort of rivalry between the two. In common, Mill and University have Urban Outfitters,
Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, Bison Witches (on Fourth Avenue in Tucson) and Pitaya. Big companies that are found nationwide sit next to locals like Cafe Boa and My Big Fat Greek Restaurant. Ra, a sushi restaurant and bar with multiple locations across the Valley and nationwide, has great happy hour deals – slashing sushi, appetizer and drink prices in half. Mojo self-serve frozen yogurt offers a variety of frozen yogurt (fruity, sugary and dairy free) to combine as you wish with fruits, cereals and sweets. Gordon Biersch has great food to eat with their brews, and an even greater view of the street below.
Off of Mill Avenue is Tempe Town Lake, recently accidentally drained and nicknamed Tempe Town Swamp. Most of the time, the Lake is a great background for festivals, runners and fisherman. This day, the lake offered a different type of beauty – the green lawn was decorated with American flags, commemorating the lives lost on September 11, 2001. Each flag was tagged with the name of a life lost, their age, where they were when they died, and a characteristic. It brought the reality of 9/11 back tastefully and subtly.
Across Tempe Town Lake, the Marquee Theatre hosts smaller concerts, with no sort of seating chart. The Phoenix Zoo and Desert Botanical Garden are right off of Mill Avenue, as well as the Phoenix Municipal Stadium, which hosts the Oakland A’s for Spring Training.
If you dare go farther than Phoenix Municipal Stadium, you will find a street with a less friendly reputation (depending on who you ask)… Van Buren. Every city has a Van Buren: Paris has Rue Saint-Denis, Amsterdam has the red light district, so on and so forth what have you. I scavenged a few miles of Van Buren Street searching for a prostitute, but I found no satisfaction (oh yeah, that pun was totally intentional). In fact, Van Buren is a little, well, boring. For a while, Van Buren is completely uneventful, but suddenly, somewhere after Gateway Community College, there is a change: every single sign is in Spanish, whether it’s for a business or a billboard, and it seems as if the only kind of businesses offered are llanteras (tires) and used cars. When I gave up on my quest for prostitutes (really, it wasn’t much of a quest at all), I went on a new quest for good Mexican food.
I have a theory about Mexican food: the more “hole-in-the-wall” the restaurant looks, the better the food will taste; some of the best tacos I’ve ever eaten have been from a cart on the side of the road. When I saw La Salsita on 24th Street and Van Buren, I knew I was in luck. Salsitas is bright yellow, the door is composed of thick, clear, plastic, and I immedately heard the music from a Mexican game show when I walked in.
I ordered two carne asada tacos, a quesadilla and a Coke. Coke in Mexico is served in glass bottles, cleaned and recycled after every use – I don’t know why, but it tastes different, and better. So when I finished the bottle, I ordered a can of Coke, and told the waitress “I wasn’t sure if I could take the bottle home with me.” She laughed hysterically and handed me a Coke and about 30 napkins. I don’t know if she thought I was funny for wanting to recycle the bottle, or if she just didn’t understand a word I said. Either way, I drank a lot of Coke at lunch, and I wish I could say that the food was just as fulfilling. I improved the carne asade with salsa, guacamole and lime I grabbed from Salsitas. Shockingly, the quesadilla was made with yellow cheese, rather than traditional white Mexican cheese, and it just wasn’t the same. Because I grew up on the border of Mexico, I consider myself to be a pretty qualified taco and quesadilla judge, so what failed to satisfy me might satisfy others, nevertheless, anything is more authentic than Taco Bell.Follow @ivymorris