Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport has made a concentrated effort to partner with local restaurants and provide those visiting Phoenix, even briefly in the case of a layover, a taste of the rich culinary scene that is the Valley of the Sun. For this very reason, every time I open Yelp’s mobile application, I am shown all of the restaurants in the airport. Normally, I would not go out of my way to eat at the airport. However, Phoenix recently announced that it was expanding the light rail. Mayor Greg Stanton proposed a massive plan to expand the light rail to three times its current size.
In America, I am told you vote with your dollar — it is for that reason that I decided to take my hard-earned money and spend it in a manner that encourages both the light rail expansion and the local food in the airport. I went out of my way to get myself out to the airport for lunch, using only public transportation.
Most Phoenicians are familiar with the light rail’s existence, and most people, sans some people from Scottsdale, have nothing bad to say about the service. However, there is another train in the Phoenix metro area. The Sky Train, which opened in 2013 and connects the 44th Street and Washington light rail station to terminals 4, 3, 2 and the East Economy Lot, is not as well known as the light rail but serves an equally important purpose.
As the train pulled into Terminal 4, the terminal that serves 80 percent of the airport’s passengers and my culinary destination for the afternoon, the tarmacs and planes came into sight. The parallels my mind drew between the airplane passengers and my fellow Sky Train comrades were emotionally overwhelming.
Human beings made transportation, let alone international travel, stunningly easy. By my calculations, I could travel from my Tempe address to London, Paris or Tokyo and have my skin exposed to the sun’s rays for the amount of time it takes me to walk to the light rail station and then walk down the 44th Street and Washington station to the entrance of the Sky Train.
I stepped out of the Sky Train, and my nostrils were immediately hit by the distinctive airport smell, a smell that triggers headaches and fills sinuses with the scent of stale luggage. I wandered into the terminal and was immediately reminded why people would not go out of their way to eat at the airport.
I found a directory and was crushed to realize that many of the premier culinary options (La Grande Orange, Cartel, DeLux Burger, Four Peaks Brewing Company, Humble Pie and Matt’s Big Breakfast) were all behind the security check points.
I was stranded without a press pass — I felt lost without my one possible way past security. Even with a press pass in hand, I doubt the TSA would have let me through security with the excuse of “I have a story to tell.”
I first made my way to Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles. Having been to the Baseline and Central Avenue location, I was confident in the combination of both chicken and waffles. As tempting as “Betty’s Boob,” an $8 offering including a chicken breast and a waffle sounded, I stuck with one side order of waffles.
I was on a budget and I needed to pace myself. Disappointingly, there were no sides of chicken fingers. I later realized that priced at $4 a piece, two sides (a waffle and chicken fingers) would cost me $8, the price of the aforementioned “Betty’s Boob.” The waffle was delicious. The syrup and butter were perfection.
My close friend, who trailed along with me to keep me company and ensure that I would not end up on a plane to Dubai, ordered the fried green tomatoes and side of chili, both of which were phenomenal.
After all of the side dishes were consumed, I went back to the counter of Lo-Lo’s and reveled my identity as a State Press reporter to the employee at the counter. Jennifer was more than happy to talk about her experience at the airport location.
Aside from the knife checks the restaurant is required to partake in three times a day, Jennifer said, “working at an airport restaurant is really just the same as working at a street-side restaurant.”
The only downside of working in an airport restaurant was that she missed her regular customers, Jennifer said. However, her face lit up with joy when she shared that one of her favorite customers from a previous job was trekking out to the airport just to visit her. “They don’t plan on taking the light rail down, though,” she said.
Despite the face that a majority of the restaurant options in the airport are local brands that opened airport locations in an attempt to cultivate a sense of culinary culture, the employees of these restaurants are not actually employed by the local restaurants.
Rather, Sky Harbor restaurant employees are employed by Airserve, a company similar to Aramark, the food provider at ASU. Airserv and Aramark employ vast numbers of workers and delegate them to various restaurants at different locations.
The lone exception to this Cartel Coffee Lab, which employs its own highly specialized baristas. Upon being hired, Jennifer received two days of training from Lo-Lo’s at its Baseline and Central location before being sent back out to Sky Harbor.
From Lo-Lo’s, I made my way down to Lola Coffee at the end of the terminal. It should be noted that at the opposite end of the terminal lies a Starbucks. Despite the fact that Lola is not a corporate giant, the coffee tasted just like a cup of Starbucks coffee. Perhaps that was my mistake for ordering my regular iced coffee as opposed to an espresso drink.
The atmosphere at Lola was conducive to conversation, more so than any other area in the main concourse but at the end of the day it is slightly more chic, comfortable and conscious than the Starbucks lying in direct opposition across the terminal.
Lorde’s “Royals” served as the soundtrack to the scene that unfolded in Lola coffee that afternoon. In one corner of the room was a balding, grey-haired man with a look of confusion on his face as he turned his palms toward the sky in response to something on the screen of his iPad. All I could think about was how good Lorde is and how I normally drink my coffee black because cream makes my stomach upset. Feeling adventurous as I was, I had made the mistake of putting cream in my coffee. I made my way to the sole Fox Restaurant Concepts restaurant in the public portion of Terminal 4, Sauce Pizza & Wine.
The lovely lady who worked in one of the many southwest themed gift shops had told me that her favorite place to eat was sauce. Needless to say, I was excited. I had initially planned on eating at the Chelsea’s Kitchen located right next to Sauce. There were windows in that restaurant, but you had to pay for it.
The idea of paying for an expensive sit down meal in an airport terminal seemed strange to me, but maybe that’s because I wasn’t flying for business — or really flying at all.
I waited in line and placed my order for one personal pizza, thin crust, tavern ham and caramelized onions. The lady in the gift shop said the service was fast, and she was not wrong. The speed at which we were served surprisingly did not compromise the quality of the ‘za.
The wood fired pizza was delicious, and was a near faithful recreation of the pizza I would have eaten at a brick and mortar Sauce Pizza & Wine location. I was still painfully aware of the fact that there was no natural lighting.
As we made our way back the Sky Train, I saw a sign for restaurants that are coming soon. Yogurtology, America’s Taco Shop and Smashburger will all soon call Terminal 4 their home. Cheuvront, a self-proclaimed food and wine bar, was the only restaurant left that I had to pass to get to the Sky Train.
The walls of the restaurant appeared to be made of wine racks. A man with blonde frosted tips paced the bar, serving the patrons their vice of choice: alcohol. The entryway to Cheuvront was decorated with a display of dishes served by the restaurant and two equally sized menus, one for wine and one for food.
For someone who has a layover, the airport cuisine is a great thing. There is a taste of local Arizona flavor, a flavor that is often overlooked. Phoenix has an incredible restaurant scene, and is home to some of the best food in the country. The city’s airport reflects the culture of the city.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter for more live-Tweeting @JordanBohannon.