The Hot Sheet | The blog about what to do and where to go in Phoenix, AZ The blog about what to do and where to go in Phoenix, AZ

17Jan/140

Sneak peek: Cubs Park

Cubs park mesa

Chicago Cubs fans have waited 105 years for a World Series title. But they’ll have to wait only until the open of the Cactus League season Feb. 27 to christen a new spring training stadium.

Cubs Park, the newest stadium in the Cactus League, is nearing completion, and the Cubs treated us to a sneak peek of the facilities.

The new ballpark hasn’t yet been “Cub-ified”—much of the signage and adornments are still forthcoming—but the facility has rounded into shape enough to give you a pretty good idea of what attending a Cubs game this spring will feel like.

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9Oct/090

Fall Events: Rawhide Doomtown

CowboyGhost

If Sergio Leone — the creative mind behind spaghetti Westerns such as “A Fistful of Dollars” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” — had ever directed a slasher movie, I suppose it would have looked a lot like Doomtown.

Imagine an Old West town, populated by ghostly cowboys, headless horsemen and dust-covered zombies, all of them swaggering about at an unhurried pace, sizing up at interlopers and ignoring open wounds.

The unspoken dilemma of these undead, uninhibited townsfolk seems to be this: Should I make this kid cry or not?

Doomtown is the annual October incarnation of Rawhide Western Town at Wild Horse Pass. In the spirit of Halloween, the purveyors and performers at this replica of an 1880s Arizona boomtown don ghoulish garb and paint the town red, white and bluish — with fake blood, spider webs and black lights.

Halloween Train

I love Halloween but don’t scare particularly easily, so I carried a healthy bit of skepticism into last night’s sneak peek of Doomtown for media members. But I was instantly encouraged to see a pre-teen girl clutching her mother’s had and crying, “I want to go home!” as a headless horseman and pistol-waving cowboy circled her family aboard inky-black steeds.

This could be good, I thought. And it was.

Crying child aside, I can confidently report that Doomtown is fun for the whole family. The degree to which you frighten yourself is entirely up to you.

Our cadre of Doomtown expeditionaries consisted of five media/PR types and one very cool 11-year-old boy. The latter’s emotions vacillated from (1) pretending not to be scared, (2) pretending not to be scared while laughing loudly, (3) being scared without pretense, (4) being absolutely terrified as a chain-saw-wielding zombie chased him out of a haunted house.

We adults lubricated our fearlessness with salt-rimmed beverages and whiskey cocktails — neither of which, by the way, I would recommend taking on the Train of Terror unless you want to disembark with wet clothes. The 12-minute ride aboard this miniature train (whose conductor looked as though he were the illegitimate spawn of Bea Arthur and Ozzy Osbourne) was my favorite Doomtown attraction. It was dark, creaky and full of surprises — everything Halloween should be.

Jailbird

You can scare up a ticket to Doomtown for $13, but I suggest forking out $24 for the combo pass, which gets you into all the attractions (including the Train of Terror and the Rawhide Roughriders stunt show) as well as two haunted houses (the Asylum and Crypt).

For more information about Doomtown, including hours, pricing and directions, visit Rawhide’s Web site at www.rawhide.com. The event runs through Nov.1.

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9Jun/091

Durant’s

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Every time I walk into Durant’s, I think of the opening line of John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row, which goes like this: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

Durant’s, of course, is not in Monterey — it’s on Central Avenue in Phoenix, and has been since 1950. And unless freshly sliced prime rib or clinking cocktail glasses offends your sensibilities, it certainly does not stink or grate the ears. But, on a purely sensory level, there is something literary about the place.

Durant’s is an old hardback novel. Durant’s is a car with fins. Durant’s is your grandfather’s cologne. Durant’s is a place where the walls retain the memory of cigarette smoke and lies, and the tablecloths are as stiff and white as papal robes. Durant’s patrons are movers and shakers, regulars and lifers. Even first-timers to Durant’s seem to have an eye for history and a story to tell.

Put simply: Durant’s is the Cannery Row of Phoenix dining.

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The namesake of Durant’s is Jack Durant. In Phoenix’s pantheon of colorful characters, he falls in right behind Jack Swilling and Jacob Waltz and Barry Goldwater. Google him. You’ll learn he was a gambler, a gangster, a drinker, a grandpa with a gold heart. You’ll read that he loved his dogs more than his wives, that his taste in décor was influenced by bordellos, that one of Phoenix’s most notorious murders was planned in his bar.

Jack Durant died in 1987, and I don’t know the real man from the legend. (Though I’m pretty sure he would detest the idea of being Googled.) I do know, however, what Jack Durant left behind: a classic American steakhouse.

This is old news for the beef-eating lawyers and lobbyists who convene at Durant’s for lunch and happy hour, and for the playwrights and reporters who linger until closing time. But for a new generation of journalism students and light-rail riders, Durant’s stands to be a revelation.

IMG_8042On a recent Saturday night I encountered a hipster couple at the bar who wondered aloud about the difference between an apertif and a digestif, then left without finishing their martinis. I have a feeling Mr. Durant’s English bulldog, Humble, would have growled at them were he still prowling the bar instead of hanging on the wall, immortalized in oil paint.

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College students and cool kids should know that Durant’s ain’t cheap. You could buy a year’s worth of Top Ramen for what it costs to order dinner for two. Expect to pay $49 for a filet mignon, $72 for a porterhouse and $32 for crab cakes. For those of us not impervious to the recession, splitting a shrimp cocktail or a late-night dessert at the bar is a more reasonable option. (I’m a fan of the simple-yet-sublime vanilla ice cream with fresh berries.)

And here’s a memo to light-rail riders: I know the trains drop you off on Central Avenue, but if you use the restaurant’s streetside entrance, you’ll miss out on the true Durant’s experience. Instead, walk around to the valet stand in the rear parking lot, then follow the red mats through the kitchen to the dining room. For a few seconds, as the cooks and wait staff issue greetings over the din of sizzling meat and clattering kitchenware, you’ll feel like you’re the star of that long tracking shot in Goodfellas.

IMG_8101Once inside, request a booth. They’re covered in wine-colored vinyl and set against red-flocked wallpaper. They’re also shaped like capital “C’s,” which might make you feel like you need to close a deal or engage in a game of footsie, depending on your dining companion.

When it’s time to order, go big. Eat like a gangster. Every entrée is as monumental as Jack Durant’s backstory, but I recommend something old-schoolish like the Delmonico steak or prime rib — you know, something with a little fat on it. And don’t be shy about asking for seconds of Durant’s famous bread, which comes drenched in butter and garlic and crowned with minced basil and leeks.

Jack Durant’s motto was this: “In my humble opinion, good friends, great steaks and the best booze are the necessities of life.” I don’t know if you’ve ever read Cannery Row, but let me tell you: That little novel’s cast of characters would have loved Jack Durant and the poetic, nostalgic, habit-forming restaurant he gave Phoenix.

Jack

www.durantsaz.com

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6Mar/094

Tuck Shop

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What is it with “comfort food”? It seems I can’t open a menu these days without finding it. Macaroni and cheese. Meatloaf. Fried chicken.

I guess, in a moribund economy, nothing sells like nostalgia.

Personally, I’m far from nostalgic about comfort food. I’m unmoved by mac ’n’ cheese, I eschew any meat dish that ends in “loaf,” and I’ve pitied many a restaurant’s attempt to rouse the memory of my grandmother’s fried chicken.

So three months ago, when I was walking my dogs in the Coronado Historic District and passed a new restaurant in the unlikeliest of spots, the hopefulness that welled inside me lasted only until I glimpsed the menu. It read: “Tuck Shop: Neighborhood Comfort Food.”

Sigh.

Still, when an independently owned restaurant opens in your ’hood, you have to give it a chance—especially when that restaurant is as aesthetically appealing as the Tuck Shop.

The Tuck Shop is the creation of a local architect (DJ Fernandes of Construction Zone), and it shows. What was once a nondescript brick building is now a testament to thoughtful modernism. I was instantly enamored by the “reading room,” a waiting area cum lounge with a comfy couch, white candles and a shelving unit carefully cluttered with books and games. Think of the coolest neighbors your family had in 1979: this is their den.

Reading Room

Reading Room

Remember these?

Remember these?

In the front of the restaurant, separating the kitchen from the dining room, is a small bar with architect’s stools. The Tuck Shop stocks about 20 wines and a half-dozen bottled beers, and it serves Four Peaks on tap (including a special brew called Tuck Shop Ale).

But the bar’s real genius lies in its selection of spirits: It has one—and only one—of everything. Order whiskey and you’ll get Wild Turkey Rye. Order vodka and you’ll get Tito’s. Order gin and you’ll get Hendrick’s. The bar’s shelves are also home to such inspired labels as Bruichladdich Scotch and Pimms No. 1.

Basically, the Tuck Shop is to libations what Google Reader is to information. It’s a refreshing concept, and one that alters the matrix for bar patrons who can never seem to decide which fruit-flavored vodka they want to mix with their Red Bull.

Despite the three paragraphs I just devoted to the bar, the Tuck Shop is very much a restaurant first, watering hole second. The intimate dining room is dominated by a beautiful, carved-wood sharing table (I’m told it came from Passport Imports, on Indian School), and every chair that surrounds it—in fact, every chair in the restaurant—is different than its neighbor. The chairs are plucked from old kitchen-table sets, and you’re likely to recognize a model that supported your derriere for a lifetime of Frosted Flake munching and spaghetti slurping.

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Finally, the food: As a persnickety meat-and-potatoes guy, I state up front that I’m an unqualified critic of cuisine. For assessments of Tuck Shop by people with more sophisticated palates than mine, I suggest you troll Yelp or check out The Arizona Republic’s recent review (4.5 out of 5 stars). But I can tell you this: Every night at about 7 p.m., my lizard brain flashes to the flavor of the Tuck Shop’s maple-roasted pork tenderloin. And the citrus-brined fried chicken? Better than my grandmom’s.

Two other things you need to know about the Tuck Shop: One, it takes its name from the term commonly given to a commissary at an English private school. (Owner Fernandes attended an English-style boarding school in Rhode Island.) Two, if you’re fond of alt-country bands and singer-songwriters (such as My Morning Jacket, Whiskeytown, Neko Case, Bright Eyes, etc.), you’re going to dig the background music.

ts_tableFernandes might be an architect, but he got the restaurant thing right on his first try. The food is fantastic, yes. But it’s everything else that makes the Tuck Shop so intoxicatingly comfortable.

Just how comfortble is it? Consider: I live five blocks from the place. I have a couch. I have a little bar. I have an iTouch full of good music. I probably even have a pork loin in the freezer. Yet three nights this week I left my house and walked, trancelike, to this green building on the corner of Oak and 12th streets.

It’s like an opium den opened in my neighborhood. And I can’t stop chasing the dragon.

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14Feb/090

NBA All-Star Celebrity Game

Start of chuck
Start of chuck

A few weeks ago, when the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association held its annual convention and tradeshow at the Phoenix Convention Center, I wandered through the building and was surprised to find live bulls and broncos roaming about its lower level.

Star of "Chuck"

Star of "Chuck"

I figured that was as surreal a scene as I was likely to see in a downtown convention center until I walked into the same building Friday night and witnessed Magic Johnson and Julius Erving exchanging pleasantries in the center of a full-size basketball court as a half-dozen NBA mascots flipped about like Mexican jumping beans and that guy from Chuck ducked a camera boom to bump fists with Stuart Scott.

It was like 1982 NBA Finals meets Pan’s Labyrinth. Or maybe SportsCenter meets Hollywood Squares. Either way, it was weird.

The occasion for all this frivolity was the McDonald’s NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, which brought together NBA legends, TV and film stars, and (refreshingly) members of the Harlem Globetrotters for an evening of light-spirited hoops.

I won’t bother recapping the game, but in the spirit of Oscar season and obligatory blog snarkiness, here's a list of highly unofficial awards that recognize the evening’s best personalities and performances. Enjoy.

T.O. and Dr. J
T.O. and Dr. J

Best Athlete on the Court: Terrell Owens. T.O., who won his second consecutive Celebrity Game MVP award, could log productive minutes at small forward for several NBA teams, including the Suns. Come to think of it, being on the receiving end of Steve Nash’s passes rather than Tony Romo’s might be better for his stats and his ego.

Chris Tucker

Chris Tucker

Fan Favorite: Chris Tucker. His voice is higher than his vertical and he’s a few sacks of rice heftier than his Rush Hour heyday with Jackie Chan, but Tucker still knows how to solicit laughs and cheers.

Awww, That’s Too Bad Award: To former “Human Highlight Reel” Dominique Wilkins, who couldn’t quite elevate for a dunk under the basket. When it comes to old guys and windmills, Dominique now plays second fiddle to T. Boone Pickens.

Chivalry is Dead Award: To Arizona alum and Harlem Globetrotter Eugene “Wildkat” Edgerson, for waylaying Lisa Leslie. Edgerson, who is 6-foot-6 (6-foot-11 with afro) and 245 pounds, rumbled from one end of the court to the other to swat the shot of the spindly WNBA star, sending her into photography row. That’s no way to treat a lady, especially on the eve of Valentine’s Day.

Biggest Bruiser: Micahel Rapaport. If it moves, Rapaport (Beautiful Girls, Mighty Aphrodite) will foul it. Then he will complain about the call in an over-the-top Brooklyn accent. This schtick was pretty funny the first seven times, but by foul No. 8 even his teammates seemed tired of it.

Ageless Wonder: Dan Majerle. Phoenix’s favorite adopted son scored 13 points and hit 3 of 4 shots beyond the arc. If you don’t guard Thunder Dan, he will make you pay. Still. (And he serves up a fine burger to boot.)

Best Mike D’Antoni Impression: To East team coach Julius Irving, who seemed to have little use for some of his reserves, particularly Zach Levi (Chuck) and James Denton (Desperate Housewives).

Hardest Theoretical Question: Who would win a celebrity smile-off between Magic Johnson, Curly Neal and Rick Fox? It's a tough one, but I have to lean toward Neal, the legendary Globetrotter. He's pure happiness in a red warm-up suit. I found his smile infectious when I was 7 years old, and it got to me again Friday night. Basketball could not ask for better ambassadors.curly-resized

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8Feb/090

Camelback Ranch

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Camelback Ranch, Greater Phoenix’s newest spring-training facility, hasn’t even hosted a game yet, but it’s already made the world a better place.

How? Simple: More baseball, fewer Brussels sprouts.

I toured Camelback Ranch last week and learned that the new Cactus League home of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox was built on land formerly leased by the City of Glendale to farmers who grew broccoli and Brussels sprouts. No offense to our nation’s proud and hard-working farmers, but any project that tilts the cosmic balance between leafy vegetables and spectator sports toward the latter is OK in my book.

But that’s far from the only reason to patronize Camelback Ranch this spring. First off, the ballpark and its surrounding facilities are gorgeous. Baseball fans who have visited some of the country’s newest pro stadiums know that the idea of a ballpark as a sea of asphalt is as outdated as white cleats and AstroTurf. Still, Camelback Ranch takes the bucolic-ballyard thing to a whole new level.

There’s a creek. There are walking trails. There’s an orange grove. For goodness sake, there’s even a lake stocked with bass, bluegill, catfish and turtles.

Apparently, the developers’ creed was: “If you build a nature preserve, they will come.”

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river

The main stadium, which the Dodgers and Sox share, is filled with 10,000 box seats the color and sheen of melted caramel. There’s room for 3,000 additional fans on the grassy berms along the baselines and beyond center field.

Since the playing field is sunk 12 feet below grade, sight lines are fantastic. Depending on where you sit, you’ll be treated to backdrop views of the White Tank Mountains or the silvery shell of University of Phoenix Stadium.

The stadium is surrounded by a dozen practice fields, two of which are built to the exact dimensions of the Dodgers and Sox’s home parks. I was told during the tour that Roger Bossard — the Obi-Wan Kenobi of major league groundskeepers — oversaw the construction of all the fields. (No word on whether he had a hand in creating the turtle habitat.)

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If not for all the construction workers milling about last week (about 800 of them, working hard to get Camelback Ranch ready for its March 1 opening day), I might have assumed the entire complex just sprung from the earth. It’s very organic. The teams’ clubhouses — low slung, with walls of natural stone and rusted-metal panels — look like they might have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West pupils.

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Bottom line, without hyperbole: I’ve been to spring-training parks across Arizona and Florida, and Camelback Ranch might be the most spectacular one I’ve ever seen. I’ve got a Dodger-fan friend coming out from L.A. next month, and I can’t wait to take him to a game.

The only thing I’m not sure about is the name. “Camelback Ranch” sounds like something you might get drizzled on a salad at one of Phoenix’s resorts. I mean, you can’t even see Camelback Mountain from Glendale.

But, hey, at least the place isn’t called Brussels Sprouts Farm.

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Filed under: Places to go, Scott, Sports