30 reasons why we’re thankful to live in Arizona from killer Mexican food to desert rain – AZCentral.com

As the chill of fall sweeps Arizona, it’s time to reflect. We’ve faced another year of times both trying and gleeful, frightening but bright. It’s on those sunny spots that we’d like to focus, as we cross days off 2021’s waning calendar and look to what awaits in the new year. There’s hope. There’s dread. There is so much to feel thankful for, from natural wonders and great eats to international markets and vibrant art.

Let us count the reasons — 30 to be exact.

Our Mexican food scene rules

If you’ve ever eaten a burrito in Idaho, you know what it’s like to yearn for the Mexican food of Arizona. There’s just nothing quite like it anywhere else in the country, and it’s usually the first thing I crave when I leave home — particularly fresh Sonoran flour tortillas that have a crackle to them, rather than a vapid puffy texture of preservatives. They’re the perfect wrapper for mesquite-grilled carne asada or silken refried beans, with melted cheese and maybe a little guacamole tucked in there. And if you’re in the mood for another style of Mexican food, metro Phoenix probably has that too. It’s home to one of the most diverse Mexican food scenes in the United States, with restaurants serving the flavors of Guadalajara, Oaxaca, Mexico City and Michoacan. We’ve got everything here from cheese crisps to chile rellenos and the homestyle burritos of Chihuahua. 

— Andi Berlin

Love at first bite: Why this Grand Avenue Mexican restaurant is an instant classic

National parks passes are a jackpot for Arizonans who love to explore

It’s impossible to calculate the value of Arizona’s national parks, monuments and recreation areas, but I can tell you how much it costs to explore them to your heart’s content: $80. That’s the price of an annual America the Beautiful pass, which gives unlimited admission to all federal recreation lands that charge admission fees. In Arizona, those include Grand Canyon ($35/week) and Glen Canyon ($30/week) but also gems such as Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki national monuments in Flagstaff and Saguaro National Park in Tucson (each costs $25/week). You can even use the pass in lieu of Sedona’s Red Rock Pass that’s required at the most popular trailheads. You can recoup your investment with just a few visits and you can’t put a price on the imprint these places will leave on your soul.

— Jill Cassidy

Nothing compares to the smell of desert rain

The past monsoon aside, it doesn’t rain much around here. That’s expected. We live in a desert, so it’s common to go long periods without any rain at all, let alone a soaking. I think that’s part of why the showers that we do get seem so refreshing. When it rains here, we’re treated to that unmistakable, earthy fragrance of the desert when it rains. Scientists call it petrichor. It’s mostly made up of the scent released when rain hits the creosote bushes. It just smells fresh and clean and lets us forget, for a little while at least, just how hot it’s going to get again.

— Weldon B. Johnson

Our ‘shop local’ culture is strong

The enthusiasm for local businesses in the Valley is contagious.

When small businesses in metro Phoenix suffered the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, I was inspired to see so many Arizonans start fundraisers on behalf of business owners, share posts on social media about how to support the businesses and pledge to make online orders whenever possible.

Sure, I’ve heard the mantra to “shop local” before, but until last year I never felt compelled to shop with a priority other than finding a good price. But going to makers markets and finding creatives to follow on social media made me passionate about spending money that stays within my community. That’s how I’ve discovered artists such as Aileen Martinez (@look.see.draw), who sells prints of her illustrations that depict recognizable venues across the Valley, and businesses like Pot Heads Tea, which sells a lavender Earl Grey tea blend that I can’t start my mornings without.

— KiMi Robinson

‘Chaos Theory’ made a supersize comeback

Randy Slack resurrected “Chaos Theory” and the show felt special for so many reasons. The typically annual showcase of contemporary art from Arizona creatives had been on pause since 2019. The roster felt balanced between newcomers and standbys. The exhibition stretched over two days, giving those wary of First Friday crowds a chance to take in the sprawling show.

And it reads so silly, but I mean it: It was just plain nice being back at Legend City warehouse, looking at art with other people who like looking at art. 

Larry Madrigal, Gennaro Garcia and Annie Lopez were must-sees. Abbey Messmer’s warped pool water mesmerized. Goth queen Rachel Bess‘ “Crumpling Space-Time” smoldered in black and blue, alongside the cream, red and gold of Yuko Yabuki‘s striking portrait of a tattooed saint. The back wall displayed neon-tinged confections from Ben Willis, Daniel Funkhouser and Lisa Von Hoffner.

Then there was the showstopper: Merryn Omotayo Alaka and Sam Fresquez‘s “Double Take,” a chandelier of impossibly shiny Kanekalon hair layered and clamped, tethered to the ceiling by a twist. 

— Becky Bartkowski

Valley musicians are going big

For those of us who care about such things, it’s always nice to see familiar faces find an audience outside the Valley, having watched creatives grow into the artist they’ve become on local stages. This is nothing new, of course. We’ve seen it happen time and time again, from Duane Eddy to the Gin Blossoms, Jimmy Eat World and Kongos. And while no one blew up on the scale of “Rebel Rouser” or “Hey Jealousy” in 2021, we definitely had our wins, from Playboy Manbaby conquering Tik-Tok to Mega Ran charting with “Live ’95” and the release of Upsahl‘s Arista debut.

— Ed Masley 

You can get a great bowl of noodles here

A hot bowl of noodle soup should feel like coming home. There are days I long for a bowl of noodles so transcendent that every slurp brings me closer to nirvana. OK, maybe I’m being dramatic, but thankfully, there’s plenty of great noodles here.

When I moved here in 2018, Phở Thành quickly became my go-to for phở, my ultimate comfort food since childhood and, in college, favorite hangover meal. I’ve since branched out to other Vietnamese noodles, such as the stick-to-your bones bánh canh cua at Que Huong in Phoenix and the savory-sour bún riêu at Huế Gourmet in Mesa — I recommend both if you’re into crab. My favorite umami-rich bowl of ramen in Phoenix is at Ahwatukee’s Origami Ramen, where my only problem is deciding between the creamy chicken broth or classic tonkotsu. Lom Wong’s everything-from-scratch khao soi, featuring hand-pounded curry paste to handmade egg noodles, was a definite high point for takeout during the pandemic.

And those are just in Phoenix. While I have not explored a lot of noodle options in other Arizona cities, I know a trip to Tucson without stopping at the aptly named Noodleholics will only leave me with regret.

— Priscilla Totiyapungprasert

Red Rock is the best state park. No contest

Red Rock State Park in Sedona is right in the middle of a neighborhood, and other hikes around town have more dramatic scenery. So why is this the Arizona State Park I keep coming back to? The meandering trail system is thoughtfully laid out so you can customize the length and difficulty of your outing. Markers at every junction make it easy to find your way. Trailside benches let you rest and soak in the scenery or sit quietly amid the trees to listen for birds and other animals. Walking along Oak Creek is a delight in any season, especially during fall when the cottonwood and sycamore leaves turn golden. And Sedona’s iconic Cathedral Rock formation is never far from view.

— Jill Cassidy

Our creatives aren’t stingy in sharing their talents

Seek a new skill and, in the Valley, you’ll likely find someone willing to teach you. Many creatives don’t just make covetable things, they also share their talents with workshops and interactive events. This year, there was a lot to learn. Famed for her wedding dresses and metallic-flecked bridal veils, Cleo and Clementine‘s Monique Sandoval opened her picture-perfect studio at the Pemberton for a series of sewing classes in which students made totally chic caftans in a summery fabric of their choosing. Cosmic Hour‘s Monika George took aura photos at Form Floral, where subjects then assembled DIY arrangements inspired by the colors of their energy. Amy Guerrero’s Sunshine Craft Co. opens its doors to host classes on everything from macrame and loom weaving to painting and jewelry-making. And of course, our arts centers across the Valley offer classes throughout the year. 

— Becky Bartkowski

Live events are back — and keep me in the moment

Like many others, I spent much of 2020 regretting not seeing my favorite performers the last time they performed live in Phoenix. To stick it to the naysayers who would say we should be living in the moment instead of taking videos of concerts, I spent some nights in quarantine rewatching footage I’d recorded at concerts from years past.

There may have been a tear or two shed over Ed Sheeran’s acoustic performances.

Since becoming fully vaccinated against COVID-19 this year, I’ve rocked out to the Jonas Brothers — after sitting on the sidelines as a casual fan for more than a decade — at Ak-Chin Pavilion in my KN95 mask, celebrated Labor Day weekend tubing down the lower Salt River and put on a Halloween costume for the first time in years.

I will never take these seemingly simple pleasures for granted again.

— KiMi Robinson

International markets help me explore the world through food

During my weekly grocery runs, I can tour the world, often without leaving Phoenix. There are pan-Asian superstores like 88 International and Asiana, the Japanese shop New Tokyo and Vietnamese Tấn Phát Oriental. I can pick up cutlets of carne asada at El Rancho, where aisles of tamarind candy and a full-scale tortilleria make me feel like I’m in Mexico. Jars of pickled radishes, freshly baked pita, thick yogurt and bags of basmati rice await at Baiz Middle Eastern market. For saffron water, barberries and kashk dehydrated yogurt, there’s Caspian in Scottsdale.

Then there’s H Mart, Lotus Market, Yenat Enjera Ethiopian Market and Grocery, Misha’s Kosher Food Market and Euro Market — and seemingly countless other specialty shops waiting to be explored across the Valley. They are places where I can learn more about my neighbors and satisfy my wanderlust by bringing a taste of the world into my kitchen.

— Felicia Campbell

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Phoenix neighborhoods help tell the city’s history

When I moved to Phoenix about eight months ago, I wasn’t sure where to live. What better way to see if I liked a neighborhood than to live in it? After a month of testing different homes in various neighborhoods through Airbnb, I learned that some of the city’s most prized gems are its historical homes.

One of my favorite neighborhoods is Encanto-Palmcroft, located between McDowell Road and Encanto Boulevard, between Seventh and 15th avenues. Dating back to the early 1920s, it’s characterized by large lawns, winding and long roads and has a mixture of French country-style homes, Spanish revival architecture, southwestern ranch houses and modern California bungalows. 

I also explored Coronado, the Roosevelt Historic District and F.Q Story. My personal favorite home is the Barbara Jean House, a Spanish-style home built in 1928 near Roosevelt Row. You can even book a stay there online! 

— Shanti Lerner

Popcorn at Harkins Theatres

You don’t realize how much you miss it until it’s back.

When you walk into a Harkins theater there are all kinds of bright lights and movie posters. But that’s just window dressing. What makes it feel like going to the movies is the smell — the smell of popcorn.

Of all the things we’ve missed during the COVID-19 pandemic, going to theaters hasn’t been the most important. But it’s a big one. And getting a bag of Harkins popcorn is an essential part of that experience. It’s definitely something to be thankful for.

It’s just better than the popcorn in other theaters. It’s fresher. Add butter, shake on some seasoning (white cheddar is highly recommended) and you’re set.

Yes, Harkins popcorn is available in bags at grocery stores now, and there’s also a food truck that sells it. All good. But it tastes better when a movie comes with it.

— Bill Goodykoontz

Nature is always nearby thanks to city hikes

Want to get away from the city but not drive too far? In Phoenix, it’s easy to get outdoors within city limits. Phoenix Parks and Recreation oversees one of the largest park systems in the country with over 40,000 acres.

One of my favorites is Piestewa Peak, a 2.1-mile out-and-back trail located in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. Expect steep switchbacks over gravel and rocks — and a 1,200-foot elevation change. It’s a good workout and offers a 360-degree view of the metropolitan area.

Want to see some large orange sandstone buttes? Go to Papago Park. The Double Butte Loop Trail is a 2.3-mile hike where you can check out the famous Hole in the Rock.

Need more options? South Mountain Park/Preserve is over 16,000 acres. Try Holbert Trail to Dobbins Lookout, a 4-mile out-and-back trail.

— Shanti Lerner

Speaking of nature, saguaros are awesome

What’s green and tall and spiky? Or maybe short and plump with lots of arms? The Sonoran Desert’s mighty saguaros are one of the best things about Arizona. White flowers bloom on these giant cacti, which you can see all over the state. Planted ones welcome visitors at Sky Harbor. Tucson has not one but two national parks dedicated to them. Something that makes them even more special is that in the U.S., saguaros only really grow here. Sure, a few made it into California, but these giant, amazing plants are iconic Arizona.

— Tirion Morris

There’s snow! If you want it

Who doesn’t harbor romantic notions of cozy plaid, steaming mugs, crackling fires and white flurries? The beauty of living in Arizona is that most of us don’t have to deal with scraping ice off our windshields each morning for months on end, trudging through dirty puddles of melted snow to get to the office and making the choice between looking nice and freezing or looking like the Michelin man and having a prayer of staying warm. The burden of snow simply isn’t part of our daily lives, but the charm of snowshoeing across a meadow, watching the flakes fall from a toasty cabin or making a snowman are pleasures that are only a couple hours drive away.

— Felicia Campbell

Arizona’s rich indigenous history shapes what we eat

The Sonoran desert may seem tough and uninviting, but the hot weather provides an array of natural resources. People have been farming in southern Arizona for the past 4,000 years, growing staple foods such as corn, beans and squash that are rich in nutrients like iron. And before that, they were grinding mesquite beans into flour and foraging cholla cactus buds from the desert landscape. These ingredients are still found today at some of Arizona’s premium resorts and Southwestern restaurants across the Valley. Phoenix has a diverse representation of indigenous restaurants and food stands, serving everything from fry bread to blue corn pancakes made with juniper ash.

— Andi Berlin

Celebrate Native food culture: 7 Indigenous-owned restaurants in metro Phoenix

Burton Barr Central Library is a beacon of knowledge

Are you tired of working from your kitchen table? Are you a history nerd? Need a quiet place to think? The Burton Barr Central Library located on Central Avenue may be the solution. 

It houses the Arizona Room, a research collection of books, magazines, postcards and city documents that chronicle the history of the Southwest and Arizona. There’s also the Rare Book Room, which contains a first edition copy of “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin and more than 3,500 other rare books, some dating back as far as 1478. You can also view a 4,000-year-old clay tablet from Mesopotamia. 

Aside from its numerous reading rooms and quiet spaces, you can also use the library’s computers and the free college planning center, and there’s even a children’s space with interactive toys, books and games. 

— Shanti Lerner

Many music venues have weathered the pandemic

The COVID-19 shutdown could’ve wiped out all our favorite metro Phoenix music venues. After more than a year with no viable means of covering the most basic expenses, the touring industry returned in mid-2021, a fraction of its former self. And we did lose a handful of spaces whose absence will be felt by the communities they served for years to come, from Club Red to Char’s Has the Blues and the Lunchbox. But thanks to the Save Our Stages Act, the Shuttered Venue Operators Grants provided by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and the resilience of the people most invested in keeping those stages alive, most Valley venues that attracted touring artists to the Valley are back to doing what they did before the shutdown.

— Ed Masley 

The malls are so upscale, they remind me of Dubai

When I first moved to the Middle East, the last thing I expected was to become enamored of visits to the mall. But I soon learned that Middle Eastern shopping compounds are glittering oases of luxury brands, fine dining, offering an escape from brutal summer heat where you can walk through wide, perfumed marble corridors. 

Now in the Valley, I frequently find myself happily wandering the palm-lined promenade at Kierland Commons. I don’t balk at the idea of having a high-end meal at Francine in Scottsdale Fashion Square. I embrace the voyeuristic excursions into a world of opulence and air-conditioning, serenaded by the sound of Arabic, Farsi, Hindi and Spanish voices, just as I had back then. My new desert home might be 8,000 miles from my old one, but the luxurious malls in and around Scottsdale offer me a nostalgic gateway back to that glamorous, international life. 

— Felicia Campbell

Alice Cooper reunited with his Phoenix bandmates

There’s a reason Alice Cooper spent his latest album, “Detroit Stories,” paying tribute to his other hometown. He was born there, after all. He and his bandmates were sharing a farmhouse on the outskirts of Detroit when they recorded “I’m Eighteen,” their breakthrough single (and “Be My Lover,” in which he sings, “I told her that I came from Detroit City”). But Cooper met those other founding members of the group in Phoenix, where his family moved when he was 12. Three of them attended Cortez High School, where the lead singer lettered in track and made his first onstage appearance in the cafetorium. “Detroit Stories” finds the singer reunited with the other three surviving members of that classic lineup — Dennis Dunaway, Neal Smith and Michael Bruce — on two songs, “I Hate You” and “Social Debris.” Now stop teasing us and make a full-length album with those guys.

— Ed Masley

Regional Indian food goes way beyond butter chicken

It’s easy to love Punjabi-American classics inspired by the royal Mughal kitchens of Northern Indian and Lahore, from paneer studded saag to buttery ​​dal makani and chicken tikka masala. In Phoenix, we have the unique opportunity to go beyond takeout classics and explore one of the world’s oldest and most elaborate food cultures. Taste Kashmiri lamb rogan josh at The Dhaba in Tempe. Try South Indian idli rice cakes at OM Indian Bistro in Phoenix, or sweet-savory pongal rice boiled in milk and sugar at aptly named Chennai Chettinaad Palace. Or sample Mumbai street snacks at Pastries N Chaat. The nuance of the menus at South Asian restaurants throughout metro Phoenix reflects the diversity of our community, which is one of my favorite things about calling Phoenix home.

— Felicia Campbell

Our weather is perfect for year-round tennis

I caught the tennis bug when I was 12 and that became how I spent most of my free summer days and evenings growing up in Michigan. I played competitively through high school and recreationally for years after that, but not so much as I got older. About five years ago I saw a listing for something called “cardio tennis” on the Chandler recreation website and signed up. Since then I’ve taken lessons, signed up for leagues and even played in a tournament. Arizona weather is perfect for that. In the Midwest, you have maybe a six month-window before cold weather kicks in. Here you can play all year if you don’t mind the summer heat. Just make sure to wait until after dark once the heat is on.

— Weldon B. Johnson

Local produce is abundant

In Arizona, local produce is abundant. And not just at the farmers market. The state is known for its citrus groves and lemon, grapefruit and orange trees dot neighborhoods across the Valley. Little cardboard boxes sit at the end of driveways encouraging passersby to take a couple of extra fruits. Phoenix has a rich agricultural history and along with citrus, date palms once filled the Arcadia area. With some remaining trees and boutique farms across the Valley, it’s possible to buy fresh, sweet dates or harvest them from a sharing neighbor’s yard. Sphinx Date Co. in Scottsdale helps tourists and locals connect with the rich history and its sweet crop.

— Tirion Morris

The Mogollon Rim makes adventure a weekend activity

The drive along the AZ-87 Beeline Highway between Phoenix and Payson is a two-hour tour of Arizona’s dramatic biospheres. The highway twists and turns, the temperature drops and the smell of pine begin to creep in. The green of the largest stand of ponderosas in the United States offers a dramatic welcome to the Mogollon Rim, where there are more off-road trails, mountain biking paths, dispersed camping and hiking options than one could ever hope to explore in a single weekend or month or year. My favorite is Woods Canyon Lake. Like the drive itself, it starts off crowded, with families and boaters keeping the marina lively, but within a half-mile, their voices fade away. Just over a small stream, past a man-made waterfall, the woods take over.

— Felicia Campbell

Crescent Ballroom hit a major milestone

It’s been 10 years since Charlie Levy opened Crescent Ballroom, a 550-capacity music club in downtown Phoenix, which was pretty much a ghost town after 6 p.m. in those pre-Crescent days. The venue opened on a Monday with a sold-out show by a little-known indie-folk group called Blind Pilot and went on to reshape the music scene. Without Crescent leading the way and showing skeptics that downtown could be the Valley’s new musical hub, it’s doubtful we’d have Valley Bar or the Van Buren. As former Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton sees it, “I believe what Charlie did with Crescent downtown is as important to the success of downtown Phoenix as any other investment.” Crescent is still going strong, with several upcoming shows selling out far in advance.

— Ed Masley 

We live in an ecological wonderworld

From desert to canyon to forest to mountain, Arizona isn’t short on natural wonders that take our breath away. Arizona is one of the richest states in biodiversity in the country, sitting as the intersection of various ecoregions. Drive from one corner of the state to the next and you can pass through arid, cactus-dotted basins to volcanic plateaus to dense forests. 

And speaking of cactus, Arizonans have a reason to get sentimental about them. There are approximately 83 species of cactuses in Arizona, from podgy pin-cushion barrels to the rare senitas beckoning the sun with long arms to the majestic saguaros, the mascot of Arizona.

Then there’s the wildlife. There’s a species of red squirrel that only lives in one place, Mount Graham in Arizona’s Sky Islands. We have roadrunners that get illustrated on wine bottle labels and maybe one day we’ll catch a glimpse again of the elusive jaguar El Jefe

— Priscilla Totiyapungprasert

We can raise a glass to world-class cocktails

When thinking about internationally recognized cocktail cities, New York, London or New Orleans might come to mind. But a mighty group of cocktail bars and mixologists continue to elevate Phoenix to the international stage. Spots like Bitter & Twisted and Little Rituals in downtown Phoenix along with Century Grand and UnderTow in the Arcadia area have too many awards to count. Some of Phoenix’s hotels and resorts offer stellar sips and up-and-comers in Chandler and Gilbert are rising quickly, making the Valley a truly world-class spot to enjoy a cocktail.

— Tirion Morris

Murals do more than make Phoenix vibrant

A lot of things make Phoenix a big, vibrant city — lots of people, a new tall building sprouting up every time you turn around, a legitimate dining scene.

But in terms of just looking like a real place, it’s murals. They’re not just in Phoenix. They’re all over the Valley.

They’re a surprise splash of color that brightens the cityscape, bursting out from alleys and walls and the sides of buildings. Some are just cool. Some are more: They deliver a message. And they look great in the meantime.

Some of the artists and their work are pretty well-known like Antoinette Cauley, Nyla Lee, Lalo Cota and others. Some aren’t. Murals of Phoenix offers a handy map with more than 70 murals and their locations, which is a good way to get started. But the best way is just to open your eyes and start looking. Discovery is part of the magic. 

— Bill Goodykoontz

Canal paths are great for exploring by bike

I’m thankful for being able to ride my bike along the multi-use paths along the canals that criss-cross the Valley. Before the pandemic, I rode my bike mostly on weekends. I began to ride regularly when things started to shut down last year. It started out as a way to work up a sweat and clear my head after work, but soon it just became something I enjoyed doing. I don’t like riding for long stretches on busy streets, so the canal paths have become the best way to get in more miles. I started riding along the Western and Consolidated canals near home, but have begun to explore others, especially on weekends when I have more time to ride. It seems like wherever you ride, there are mountain views and I can never get enough of those (another reason to be thankful for living here).

— Weldon B. Johnson

Reach the editor at rbartkowsk@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @beckybartkowski

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