When a hike is just an excuse to work up an appetite to wine and dine.
By Nora Burba Trullsson
I live in a different part of town, but I like any excuse to venture down to Phoenix's South Mountain neighborhood.
I pretend my trek is to hike in vast South Mountain Park and Preserve or to take out-of-town pals to see the quirky Mystery Castle. Truth be told, I really like to go to South Mountain because the surrounding neighborhood is dotted with some of my favorite places to eat and drink. I hit the trails —Holbert Trail being my favorite—simply to work up an calorie deficit so I can eat sans guilt.
A favorite spot is T-Bone Steakhouse, a South Mountain institution since the 1940s. Located in old adobe and rock house, the restaurant is definitely not face with its checkered tablecloths, picnic-table seating and wagon-wheel decor. The menu is basic too, featuring steaks, chicken and pork chops.
The reason I like it? You can have a horse be your designated driver. Ponderosa Stables, located just outside the park's main entrance, offers a T-Bone Steakhouse ride. You saddle up at the stable, ride through the park at sunset, then hitch up your horse behind the steakhouse. When you're done eating (and perhaps enjoying an adult beverage or two), wranglers will guide you and the horse you rode in on back to the stable, with stars and distant city lights illuminating the trail.
Speaking of horses and adult beverages, I also like The Silver Pony, a South Mountain watering hole that opened in 1977. It's an unpretentious bar still frequented by ranchers and farmers, as well as a wide swath of other locals. On any given weekend night, you'll see Harleys, pickups, Mercedes and even a horse or two tied up at the hitching post out back. Live country music, dancing, pool tables and karaoke are the entertainment. Yes, hipsters can score a craft beer here, but Bud and Bud Light are on tap. It's that kind of place.
When I really want to tip the calorie meter, I head over to Los Dos Molinos for post-hike New Mexican soul (think extra hot salsas and spices). This location is run by chef Sandy Melton, whose parents founded the eatery in northeastern Arizona in 1980.
It's housed in an old, whitewashed adobe compound that surrounds a small patio, and was said to be cowboy movie star Tom Mix's digs back in the day. The restaurant's decor is colorful , filled with bits of family memorabilia, collectibles and art. I get a margarita that takes two hands to lift from table to lips and, once I stop diving into the chips and salsa, usually go for the adovada ribs, marinated in red chili.
If there's still time, I often suggest a tour of nearby Mystery Castle as a digestif post Los Dos Molinos. It's a phantasmagorical house built in the 1930s by a Seattle man as a gift to his daughter—a castle to call her own. He scrounged the desert and city for repurposed building materials and created an 18-room multi-level house complete with its own chapel and cantina. The Instagram-worthy Mystery Castle is open October to May.
Once or twice a year, I also make the pilgrimage to Summers Fruit Barn. Years ago, Baseline Road, the main east-to-west road through the South Mountain neighborhood, was dotted with fruit and flower stands. Summers still stands and I go to score seasonally-available Arizona melons, citrus, pecans and dates, plus Mexican piñon nuts. My favorite find there is local comb honey, which they sell with dozens of others Arizona honey choices.
If I'm in the mood for kitschy fun after a day spent hiking, I'll head to Rustler's Rooste, a cowboy-themed restaurant built on a knoll at the end of South Mountain Park overlooking what is now the Arizona Grand Resort.
The restaurant, open since the 1970s, has a live longhorn steer as its "bouncer" near the entry. Inside, there are walls that were part of an old mine shaft and a steep tin slide that will drop you down into the dining room (stairs are available if you're less adventurous). The menu leans toward steaks, burgers, chicken and ribs, but I like to dare out-of-towners to try the rattlesnake appetizer, served with a side of cactus fries. I also like to wrangle a table by the windows, which offer a 180-degree view of the city lights.
I have a fantasy of skipping the hiking altogether to spend a day eating at The Farm at South Mountain, a pastoral compound that includes three restaurants and a small vegetable farm. The ten-acre property was one of the many small farms that once dotted the community—but this one boasted a pecan grove. Local landscape architect and planner Wayne Smith bought the place in the 1980s and slowly began transforming the dilapidated buildings and ranch house into charming eateries and retails spaces, all connected by a lawn shaded by those pecan trees. Pat Christofolo, who spearheaded the culinary operations there for years, now owns The Farm at South Mountain and keeps the emphasis on food and agriculture.
So in my perfect day-at-The-Farm scenario, I would start out with fresh pastries and coffee at Morning Glory Café, then stroll over to see what's growing in the large garden plot, which produces vegetables, herbs and flowers for The Farm’s restaurants. I might also meander over to Botanica, a small retailer of decorative items for the garden, which also had a produce stand where you can pick up fresh veggies to cart home. At lunch, I'd hit The Farm Kitchen for a sandwich or salad, to be enjoyed at picnic tables under the trees. By evening, I'd head over to Quiessence, the chef-driven dinner spot in the old ranch house and patio. This is literally a farm-to-table operation, offering seasonal tasting menus that feature handmade pastas, local cheeses, Arizona beef and salads you can practically see growing from your table.
The only thing lacking at The Farm? A hammock, so I could spend the night under the trees and start all over again—maybe with another South Mountain hike.