Phoenix is sort of like the Texas of American metropolises.
Phoenix is big, and it owns its bigness in all directions, with a landscape that encompasses mountains and canyons, rivers and lakes (yes, rivers and lakes), pastures and farmland, and hubs of urbanism.
Its dustier corners are populated by ranchers and farmers, while its center is filled with city-dwellers and collegians with affinities for live music, local art, indie food, craft beer and periodic weirdness.
Its proximity to Mexico colors its history and culture, and that connection manifests itself daily in the flavors of food, the names of places, and the passions of its people.
The best way to learn about such an expansive and diverse place (as any Texas Monthly reader knows well) is through the individual stories of its inhabitants—the ones whose very existence evangelizes the wonder and worthiness of a destination.
In the videos below, a few of Phoenix’s inhabitants introduce you to a side of the city you maybe haven’t met. The spirit of Phoenix has gotten into the veins of these folks, inspiring them to put down roots or start a business. Their stories might give you a new appreciation of Arizona’s most famous metropolis—which, it must be said, possesses a downright Texas-sized personality.
Silvana Salcido Esparza, chef and activist
Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza is the daughter of a baker and the modern scion of a family that, before they emigrated to Mexico in the 1600s, served as the official pastry chefs to Spain’s royal family. Esparza was born in L.A. and grew up in California’s Central Valley, but she says Phoenix is her home because “I came here broken, and this is where I healed.” Esparza owns three restaurants in Phoenix, but her first—her bebé—is Barrio Café, on 16th Street, in Phoenix’s unofficial “Mexican Midtown”. This is where Esparza poured her family legacy and love of Mexican cuisine into an enterprise that has made her arguably the most beloved restaurateur in all of Arizona.
Bob Corritore, blues musician and club owner
Bob Corritore is a blues man. That fate was decided when, at age 12, he heard Muddy Waters on the radio. Corritore taught himself to play harmonica and became a virtuoso. He has played alongside legends like Bo Diddley, Ike Turner, Pinetop Perkins and Texas’ own Jimmie Vaughan. Corritore was born in Chicago, but he’s become a Phoenix institution. For the past four decades he has hosted a weekend blues show on Phoenix’s flagship public-radio station, and his music club, The Rhythm Room, puts blues (and rock and folk) onstage seven nights a week. The club is simple and dark, but Corritore says on any given night the ghosts of his blues mentors “are floating around that room.”
Ross Simon, cocktail-parlor proprietor and barman
Ross Simon is a perfectionist. That shows in so many details of his downtown Phoenix cocktail parlor, Bitter & Twisted. It shows in the detail-rich cocktail menu that’s longer (at 24 pages) than some novellas. It shows in the water-filtration system that ensures all the ice—some of which is hand-carved into spheres—is made from pure mineral water. And it shows in the no-standing-at-the-bar policy—“a wee measure to encourage civility,” says Simon, in the lilting brogue of his native Scotland. And surely it is no mere coincidence that Simon’s cocktail parlor is housed in a building that in the 1920s was home to, of all things, Phoenix’s local Prohibition office.
Brian Jump, outdoorsman and mountain guide
After graduating with a degree in philosophy from the University of Denver and completing a 95-day course at the National Outdoor Leadership School, Brian Jump made what he presumed would be a “pit stop” in Phoenix. That was 19 years ago, and Jump, contrary to his surname, has kept his boots planted firmly in the Sonoran Desert ever since, designing tours at Arizona Outback Adventures. He fell in love with the Phoenix area, which boasts more acres (nearly 190,000) of recreational open space than any major metropolis in the United States. “Anywhere you live in the city of Phoenix,” Jump points out, “there’s a mountain park, with thousands of acres, within a 10-minute drive.”
Nobuo Fukuda, izakaya owner and culinary expeditionary
Born and raised in Tokyo, Nobuo Fukuda arrived in Phoenix in the early ’80s. He had the equivalent of $400 cash in his pocket and spoke not a word of English. He got a job, his first in America, at a Benihana restaurant. That was then. These days, the chef known to Phoenix foodies simply as “Nobuo” owns a James Beard Award and helms one of the most innovative and intimate restaurants in Arizona: Nobuo at Teeter House. When he’s not presiding over omakase dinners in downtown Phoenix, Fukuda travels—often to Tokyo and its famed Tsukiji fish market—in search of ingredients and inspiration in his unending quest to strike the perfect balance between Japanese and Western flavors.