The Phoenix metropolitan area's incredibly robust food scene ranges from a taco truck with the best carnitas served fresh from a Walmart parking lot, to a "super artsy" spot in Paradise Valley that charges $300 for a smear of artisan quail mayonnaise on an upside down sink faucet. Tempe and downtown Phoenix are quite popular among ASU students, as they have the largest campuses. Certain restaurants are bound to be frequented more than others. I visited four to see how they compared and assessed them simply off vibes, as these establishments proved too chaotic for a logical rating system.
My first stop was up Mill Avenue to Varsity Tavern, where I could hear music getting louder as I approached from Shady Park three blocks away. Dozens of 30-something ASU alumni were chatting, drinking various shades of amber beer and watching the fourth quarter of a college football game on a Wednesday afternoon.
I walked into the old-looking building and was overwhelmed by the combined odors of warm spilled beer and sweat, with notes of Axe spray layered on that morning. I felt stickier with each step I took.
The environment I witnessed was a far cry from the Instagram posts highlighting wild parties. Everywhere I looked, there were men wearing mid- to late-2000s fraternity T-shirts. There were more Greek letters in the bar than in the Latin building.
I sat at the least sticky table I could find and a waitress, a bikini-clad girl not much older than me, brought over a food and beer menu. I asked a girl at the table behind me what she'd recommend for someone under 21, handing her the beer menu as I'm only 18. She gave me an understanding look and handed me a cocktail menu instead.
Looking over the wide menu, very few options caught my eye. My appetite sprinted out the door when I saw Cheez-It Chicken Tenders on the appetizer menu, so I just ordered a glass of water.
I looked a bit closer at the football game on the 75-inch TV screen 6 feet from my face and realized it was old — it was the 2020 Territorial Cup. Each time ASU scored, a roar erupted from the sea of Alphas, Phis, Sigmas and Michelobs as if the game was live.
The game ended and instead of finding a newer game or even a livestream of a current game, they started the recording again to the excitement of the crowd.
I asked a waitress about the repeat game. She told me the annual ASU-Arizona game is always played on the TVs whenever a game isn't live, only being switched out by the following Territorial Cup.
Being in a drinking establishment without legal access to any drinks, combined with the disgusting taste of sweaty air in my mouth, left me parched, so I headed over to the Dutch Bros on South Rural Road and Lemon Street. I got as close to it as possible, as the line stretched past Apache Boulevard.
Despite the long line, a "broista" materialized next to my open car window, leaning in to greet me and take my order. All was normal as I ordered, for Dutch Bros at least, until I was about to roll my window back up and the broista interrupted me.
"So, what have you been watching on Netflix recently?" he asked me. I used to work at Dutch Bros, so I know that making small talk is not only encouraged, it's required. But even this felt odd to me.
The line of cars kept growing behind me, but this guy walked beside my car, asking me questions all the way to the window. Looking in front of me, each car had an employee escort just to keep the conversation going.
His questions became increasingly personal, jumping quickly from "what's your major?" to "your vibes feel a little off today, is your relationship with your therapist going alright?"
The agonizing crawl to the window took only five minutes but felt like hours. I thought the uncomfortable interrogation would end once the broista ran back to his next car, but I was wrong.
"Hey girl! You ordered an extra sweet Unicorn Blood Rebel? Are you on your period?" the girl at the window asked me. I grabbed my drink and sped off.
My appetite finally returned, so I made my third stop around the corner.
Taco Bell: a staple of broke college students, stoners and those in the intersection. Despite the fast food chain easily blowing its competition out of the water, I felt it was important to come here neutrally and compare it to arguably "better" food.
A cacophony of meat cooking on grills, intoxicated chattering at the tables and a familiar tune playing over the loudspeakers greeted me as I walked into the Rural Road and Apache Boulevard location.
I made eye contact with the cashier, who looked just as, if not more, tired than the man in a far booth with a half-eaten taco in his hand, his head bobbing as he fought off sleep. I ordered the mother lode of all fast food dishes: a Cheesy Gordita Crunch. The combination of soft and hard taco shells with beef and a small kick from the spicy ranch just hits different.
While I waited, I mindlessly watched the affairs of my fellow Taco Bell fans. Some ate quietly, some nursed wobbling friends after an evening out, one group even made the plain teal wall on the far side of the restaurant their personal selfie background. In the corner, two lonesome students, one with a notepad and the other with a camera, appeared to be doing the same as me.
I felt a sense of déjà vu and quickly grabbed my food in fear of plagiarism claims.
Finally, I could dig into my taco, the world fading away as I savored the long-awaited first bite. The trance was quickly broken by the following sounds in succession: a smack, liquid spilling on tile, an expletive being shouted, another expletive in response and the crunch of a fist hitting a nose.
I would've been more shocked if it weren't for my annoyance at the sounds snapping me out of my taco trance.
Two guys in their late teens suddenly made this restaurant their personal WWE ring, pushing tables away in order to have their fight. By the third punch in, I'm sure neither of them remembered the cause.
The employees who witnessed the start of the fight walked away, presumably to find a manager, knowing this was way out of their pay grade. The manager came out shortly on the phone with the police, casually conversing with the dispatcher, an indication the SmackDown nights weren't uncommon.
Cops arrived quickly, as I'm sure they had a patroller ready for the inevitable fast food restaurant call. They looked over the scene: two teens huddled over different tables trying to stop their noses from bleeding and their eyes from swelling up. With a deep sigh, one of the cops told everyone to leave to secure the scene.
I didn't need to be told twice. I grabbed what was left of my precious Cheesy Gordita and was the first person out the door.
My culinary excursion in Tempe was over, so I headed back to my home campus in downtown Phoenix and decided to treat myself to a nice breakfast the next morning at Matt's Big Breakfast.
I left my dorm at 7:30, feeling proud that I was out so early, and walked down the street toward Matt's where I found out I was the last person in all of Arizona to arrive for breakfast. The bright white and orange building swarmed with waiting patrons.
I elbowed my way to the host podium, which was almost indistinguishable among the densely packed group, and put my name down on the waitlist — the host told me I was lucky to have come alone and could be seated in an hour.
I found the only unoccupied seat, a small corner of a bench, and perched on it. I struck up a conversation with the couple next to me, who had been in line since 5:30 that morning and weren't expected to be seated until 9, which they said was their record for shortest wait time.
When my name was called, I took the walk of shame over to my table — every group went silent and scowled as someone who only waited an hour sat far before they would.
I was looking over the menu when I saw a hand point to an item on the paper I was holding.
"Definitely get the omelet, their eggs are always amazing," said a woman who was sitting on the ground right next to my chair. Her two young kids were sitting directly beneath the table, playing with the legs of the unoccupied chairs. I hadn't noticed them until now, when they asked me if I could order them pancakes with whipped cream and chocolate milk.
Bewildered at the audacity of these children, I looked over at their mother who gave me a blank stare, as if asking a stranger to order their breakfast was a simple request. As an avid conflict hater, I turned back to the menu and hoped they would forget about it once the server came to take my order.
When the time arrived, I anxiously told the server what I wanted, hoping they'd see my discomfort with the situation I was put in and that the mother wouldn't say anything.
Obviously, I didn't order pancakes for her gremlins, so she got up to find her next target, and I was free to wait for my breakfast and eat it in peace. Or, as much peace as I could find while sardine-packed with seemingly all of downtown Phoenix.
My two-day culinary journey took me far and wide, from one side of the ASU Tempe campus to the other and even to Phoenix. I learned fine dining isn't about the food you consume — unless it's Taco Bell — it's about the unique traditions and quirks of each eatery you visit.
Whether it's televising the same game for football zombies, getting free ringside tickets to WWE: ASU Edition or forcibly making new friends through invasive questions and hungry children, there's always a vibe to be checked somewhere.
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Camila Pedrosa is a managing editor for The State Press Magazine. This is her third semester working with the magazine, and she has previously written for Cronkite News and The Copper Courier.