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5 Valley hole-in-the-wall restaurants to try this summer

Downtown Phoenix's late-night foodie haven Welcome Diner is a hole-in-the-wall that offers a creative menu with a retro aesthetic. Image taken May 29, 2016.

Downtown Phoenix's late-night foodie haven Welcome Diner is a hole-in-the-wall that offers a creative menu with a retro aesthetic. Image taken May 29, 2016.

We recognize that a large section of ASU students and snowbirds make an exodus over the summer. 

This group is deserving of no blame — if anything, we're just jealous. For every handful of people able to leave, there are a few of us either unlucky or brave enough to try their luck against at least 110 degree temperatures and stick around the Valley during the summer. 

And, with dining halls and P.O.D. markets closed, we unfortunate few have to find food somewhere. Luckily for us, however, the Valley is in the midst of something of a culinary renaissance, leaving a trail of new restaurants and cafes. 

Some of the best — and cheapest — eateries in that bunch are those a little more out of the way, tucked back in strip malls and quiet neighborhoods. That said, those can be a little harder to find. 

So, we used our combined local knowledge to assemble a list of five hole-in-the-wall restaurants (some in a more literal sense than others) that students and their friends and families can try this summer. 

Couscous Express

1915 E. McDowell Rd

Phoenix, AZ 85006

Tucked away in a sea of empty lots, auto shops and t-shirt printers is a true gem in the form of Couscous Express, its presence announced by a brightly colored sign and a variety of Moroccan decor inside and out. 

Owned, operated and by-and-large staffed by one man, a Moroccan expat named Abdul Chaara, Couscous Express specializes in tajine, a type of Moroccan stew. There is a menu, though with only a handful of items, it isn't much use. 

The best strategy for approaching Couscous Express is to let the deeply generous Chaara cook you whatever he thinks is best. This, for around $15, begins a journey through serving upon serving of couscous, Moroccan flat bread, hummus, stewed vegetables, lamb, beef, pastries and whatever else is on the Chaara stovetop. To top it off, there's a seemingly endless amount of sweet mint tea. Just when you think you're at capacity, Chaara will come by with refreshing date shakes, made with dates, chocolate, cinnamon and peanuts.

Any meal at Couscous Express is unrelentingly filling and very good, and there are few better value buys in the Valley, making it a perfect choice for the college student stuck in the area over the summer. 

And, despite the underwhelming neighborhood, the atmosphere at Couscous Express is quite pleasant, with a handful of tables, Moroccan art, rugs and a playlist consisting entirely of classical music and French cafe jazz. To top it off, you'll be hard pressed to find a nicer guy than Chaara in all of Phoenix.

La Santisima 

1919 N. 16th St

Phoenix, AZ 85006

Experienced Valley diners might know La Santisima by its previous name, La Condesa. While the name has changed, the restaurant's identity certainly hasn't. 

Still located next to a Mexican party store and full of equal parts Day of the Dead and lucha libra imagery, La Santisima has a heaping menu full of tacos, burritos and more, accompanied by one of the best salsa selections in the city, with everything from pico de gallo to pecan. 

La Santisima has a little bit of something for everything, ranging from traditional items like carne asada tacos to more gourmet offerings like dogfish shark. Our personal favorite is the the black mole burrito, with shredded chicken, rice, red onion and a truly excellent spicy-sweet black mole sauce. 

And fortunately for us, La Santisima is pretty cheap. Ten dollars will net more than enough food, especially with seemingly endless servings of chips and salsa. Those looking to even further immerse themselves in the experience should not hesitate to get the amazing horchata, chocked full of nuts, fruit and spices. 

Authentic Ethio African

1740 E. McDowell Rd

Phoenix, AZ 85006

Clearly, there's something special about the 85006 zip code. On the surface, it's perhaps not the best neighborhood, but there are more seriously good hole-in-the-wall restaurants in this one single area than most anywhere else in the Valley. 

And Authentic Ethio African takes the hole-in-the-wall moniker to heart. Squished back in a tiny strip mall, it's an easy restaurant to miss. The signage isn't abundantly clear, and the most obvious identifier is a massive mural of highly-regarded Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie on an exterior wall. 

The interior is nothing more than a couple tables and some brightly colored walls and more portraits of Haile Selassie. 

For those not familiar, Ethiopian food is similar to Indian, in that it features prominently very flavorful stews and spreads called wat centered around a bread, in this case, injera, a sour, spongey flatbread.

Authentic Ethio African does these staples better than most anywhere else. The menu can be a little difficult to interpret, but those less familiar with the cuisine would be best served by getting a meat and veggie sampler. What will result is a massive platter of injera, with a ring of different kinds of wat including lamb, lentils, chicken, cabbage and more — dolloped around the side.

With rich flavors and ample substance, this plate will leave even the most cavernous stomach very full, and all the better for it.

Welcome Diner

924 E. Roosevelt St

Phoenix, AZ 85006. 

Those looking for a more gourmet hole-in-the-wall experience should look no further than Welcome Diner.

A true institution among the city's night owls, Welcome is nothing more than a diner counter with a handful of stools and a cluster of picnic tables out front. 

The menu is highly creative, with a peanut butter and bacon burger and killer beignets highlighting a list of innovative and interesting takes on comfort food, all available until two in the morning six nights a week.  

Welcome isn't necessarily the cheapest option, with most sandwiches around the $10-$15 mark, but with rich flavors and generous portions, it is very much worth the price of admission, especially with its flexible hours. 

Its retro aesthetic and community feel make it all the more appealing, and in a downtown area not exactly full of late-night offerings, it's a true asset. 

Da Vang

4538 N. 19th Ave

Phoenix, AZ 85015

There are cheap restaurants, and then there are cost-effective restaurants. Da Vang, a Vietnamese restaurant in a, ahem, transitional neighborhood in the West side of Phoenix, certainly falls into the latter category. 

Just a few bucks can get you a massive serving of any of the literal hundreds of options on the Da Vang menu, which includes pho, banh mi sandwiches, noodles, heaping spring rolls, drinks, other soups, salads and everything in between. Our personal favorite is menu item 3A: sliced beef and brisket pho. 

Some items may be a little challenging to the Western palate, especially in the volume at which they're served, but there are plenty of tamer options as well, and at an unbeatable price point. 

The dining area is deceptively large and almost always crowded, mostly with Vietnamese families. While the service can be a little inconsistent, the food is all excellent and in very high quantity, which is a hard to beat combination for the college diner. 

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