As I drove into my parking spot at the surface parking lot adjacent to the Marriott in Tucson for the Arizona Historic Preservation Conference last week, I noticed a slew of ethnic restaurants across from me. Right off the bat I saw an Afghani restaurant (Sultan Palace) next to a Vietnamese restaurant (Saigon Pho). And from their signange I could tell they weren’t very fancy, and were more over-the counter sort of places. I was absolutely delighted and started devising ways to hit both spots in the short two days I was in Tucson.
But seeing these various fast, simple ethnic restaurants in Tucson, granted it was in the university area, made me think of how we DON’T have any such thing in Downtown Phoenix, which is, supposedly, a student area as well.
Brooklyn Pizza Company in Tucson on a Thursday night. Photo by the author.
So here are 10 reasons why I think these kinds of restaurants are key to making Downtown Phoenix more vibrant:
1. They are relatively inexpensive and therefore attract lots more people than fancier restaurants.
2. The food is usually very good (but without the prices of fancier restaurants)
3. They are great lunch options for people who are in a hurry, on the work clock, between classes, or attending a conference.
4. They are also great dinner options for people who want to have an inexpensive but fun dinner, and then spend their time and money doing after-dinner activities such as going to a live show, watch a movie, go dancing or go bar hopping.
5. Their speed and affordability attracts a diverse population in terms of age. Lots of young people, like college students, are often mixed in with older professional adults at these kinds of restaurants.
6. The ethnic factor attracts lots of ethnically diverse people. For example, at Sultan Palace in Tucson, where I lunched at with John Jacqumart and Donna Reiner, we saw a bunch of Middle Eastern and Indian Subcontinental people dining there as well as lots of white Americans. It was a veritable ethnic smorgasbord! Same goes for Saigon Pho which I went to the next day, except I saw more Aisan people in the mix.
7. Fast, simple ethnic restaurants are a GREAT alternative to fast-food joints for people like me who eat out A LOT.
8. These places are usually bustling with activity, as they turn people around fast, are affordable and thus attract a consistent crowd. A great example of this is Brooklyn Pizza Company in Tucson, which is a fantastic, inexpensive, order-at-the-counter spot in Tuscon. It’s quickly becoming an institution, and is constantly crowded, busy and active.
9. Having fast, simple ethnic restaurants in Downtown Phoenix, that are open late, would be KEY to making Downtown a more vibrant, livable and active place. We have enough fancy, sit-down, (usually pricey) places. And then we have foodtrucks, which I love too. But we also need an in-between layer of options for people, with more permanency than food trucks and less slow and expensive than sit-down restaurants.
10. Fast, simple ethnic restaurants are great starter places for people who are apprehensive of trying ethnic food. The sit-down versions of ethnic restaurants often intimidate people unfamiliar with different ethnic cuisine. An example of this phenomenon is Zaytoon Kabob Bistro on 16th Street, north of Highland. My Wisconsin-bred husband Paul who normally avoids different ethnic foods LOVES this place because of their accessible format of ordering over the counter and their use of lots of photos to show what their dishes look like. Plus, they have “Americanized” options of Persian food, like kabob wraps mixed in with authentic Persian dishes like Dee-Zee.
On a last note, I still mourn the loss of Verde in Downtown as it was the only fast, simple, ethnic restaurant in the area, a place Paul and I frequented with great zeal, but alas, a place that didn’t make it…
I recently read that two new Asian inspired restaurants are opening downtown as expansions of other valley locations. I don’t know their service format, but at least it’s not traditional SAD (Standard American Diet) food.
I agree with the idea of diversity in food options (speed and cost) as well as the accessibility of “foreign” food when presented in ways that are not intimidating (Greek food–gyros and falafel–seem to have been successful items that are commonly understood to the white man).
Downtown however can be problematic for startups with their higher up front and monthly costs. Verde is a classic example of a start up that probably had a shoestring budget (compared with other successful startups downtown), lacked a location that would catch by-passers, and needed more marketing to make it work.
What does seem to work are the expansion locations, where a downtown location can be subsidized from an outlying location, a client following can migrate or help fuel the new location, and marketing is heavily aided by “free” articles in publications that can visit the existing location to review food and share experiences rather than just a proprietor’s vision or explanation of food.
Remember too that “late night” is another shift that has to be covered. Although not as distinct as dinner from lunch, the late night shift (after 8 or 9) requires a minimum set of workers, and can create a situation where the place is employee-free for only 6-8 hours a day–making 16-18 hours a day that work is being done, even if their only open half the time. For a start-up, that’s a big commitment and can be draining very quickly.
As a landlord, I would love to bring in a variety of tenants, creating an environment for exciting “street life” in the neighborhood, but the reality is that it is fiscally risky with start-ups, it can take a while to get a following that establishes that desired street life, and the landlord incurs tenant improvement costs that usually take a few years to recoup.
All in all, it is probably more practical to continue with a patter of inviting existing CenPho restaurants that are having success to open another location downtown. Maybe this would be practical for ethnic eatery proprietors to plan as part of their business strategy, since most of them are probably sole proprietors. It can work; it may just take more than it would outside Downtown.
Thomas, good observations about the costs of starting a brand new restaurant in Downtown. Local chains do have a better chance, especially at first to establish the scene in Downtown. Pita Jungle is a great example. Even though it’s not in Downtown, Zaytoon is also a good example as it has other locations. Your idea of the late night shift triggered a thought that a 24-hour place would be great, something divey like a Waffle House would work fine. A 24 hour option like that in Downtown would really fill a gap too! Maybe a 5 and Diner since that is local…
CityScape was supposed to have “Huey’s 24/7 Diner” on the top floor, up by Lucky Strike:
Their website still lists the CityScape location, but I think I may have heard something about it falling through and Lucky Strike just expanding into that place. I hope it happens, Downtown desperately needs a 24/7 establishment (it needs multiple really, but beggars can’t be choosers).
Now this is the Blooming Rock I know and love. I agree that we need more small restaurants serving a variety of international cuisines near ASU Downtown and Roosevelt Row. Right now, Tempe has innumerable places for falafel, ramen, pho, carne asada, etc. in several clusters near ASU Main and light rail. We need to see the same clusters develop near ASU DT. Unfortunately, ASU DT’s contract with Aramark, which I understand makes student meal plans mandatory for all who live on campus, limits students in their ability to support nearby restaurants. The contract is a long-term one, but there is some hope if more students choose to live in apartments near campus instead of dorms. Right now, those student-centered apartments are in short supply, but it would be great to see those built in currently vacant lots. Off-campus student housing would have a ripple effect on the Downtown economy and restaurants would be one of many sectors that would benefit.
This one hits a nerve with me. I couldn’t agree more.
I would love to see more of these places downtown. As David mentions, we have options in other areas along the line but downtown seems to be void of anything in decent numbers.
I was also really bummed about Verde. Great place, I loved the food!
The closedown of Verde was devastating.
Agreed Seth, agreed…:-(
I think it would be awesome to have more fast, simple ethnic restaurants in downtown.
I do think that there a handful of fast, simple ethnic restaurants downtown that often get looked over.
– the Mexican food joint on the southwest corner of 15th Ave & McDowell (just south of Wishill’s Donuts).
– El Norteno on 7th Ave & Roosevelt
– Azteca Bakery on 7th Ave, north of Van Buren
– Athenian Express on Central & McKinley
– Tacos de Juarez on 7th Street, north of Roosevelt
I hardly ever hear folks talk about any of these establishments. That could be a result of the odd hours that some of them hold, but it is pretty interesting that they seem overlooked (though, I did find David’s Yelp review of El Norteno).
I’ll have to try these places out Jose, and then I’ll start talking about them 🙂 Thanks for the list.