Two days in Phoenix, Arizona: Exploring the Melrose District, eating some fantastic Mexican seafood, and cocktails at one of the most impressive Tiki bars we’ve ever been to.
Phoenix, Arizona was the last stop on our San Diego and Arizona road trip adventure. We originally only planned one night in Phoenix, but our flight got cancelled so we got another day to explore. We originally didn’t think Phoenix had much to offer, but Phoenix turned out to be pretty awesome. As frustrating as a cancelled flight can be, we were glad we got some time to get to know this city a little better.
Day 1: Murals and an immersive Tiki experience
We left our Tiki Bus at the Shady Dell in Bisbee that morning, sad to be leaving the Tiki Bus behind but anxious to sleep in a real bed in a hotel after a less than comfortable night in the bus bunks. It was about a three hour drive North to Phoenix from Bisbee. There wasn’t much to see on the way.
Our first stop in Phoenix was the Oak Street Murals, something I found on Google Maps that I thought sounded unique and an interesting quick stop.
Oak Street Murals is a little residential area near Midtown where artists have painted concrete walls lining a section of streets with a large variety of murals. Some of them are pretty impressive. If you have a car and are spending some time in Phoenix, it’s worth a stop.
After exploring the murals, we were hungry and ready to return the rental car and check into our hotel. A look at Google Maps found nearby Hula’s Modern Tiki restaurant, and you know we can’t resist Tiki themes.
I wouldn’t classify Hula’s Modern Tiki as a Tiki Bar, more like a Hawaiian themed modern chain restaurant. That said, the location in Uptown Phoenix was a very nice spot for lunch. A nice patio with misters and shade coverings provided relaxing casual ambiance while also being an escape from the heat.
Not wanting a huge lunch or any leftovers, we opted for the Hilo Sliders off the appetizer menu with a side of Hawaiian macaroni salad. The slider trio served on Hawaiian sweet bread gives you the option to pick Luau Pork, Spicy Thai Fish Cake, or regular burger–or one of each. They were tasty and the perfect amount of food.
Ready to relax in some air conditioning, we returned our rental car to the airport and made use of the free shuttle to the Radisson Hotel Phoenix Airport to check in. No complaints about the Radisson, rooms were clean and beds were very comfortable. We wanted to be near the airport for our scheduled 8:30 flight the next morning.
That evening, we were excited to check out the one Tiki Bar in Phoenix, The Undertow. I had made a reservation a month prior (Definitely make a reservation in advance–this place is popular). However, The Undertow doesn’t serve food, so we needed some sustenance first. Knowing we were going to drop some dough on pricy cocktails, we opted for an inexpensive meal at Z’s Greek nearby. The food was fast food Greek, no atmosphere or ambiance and it seemed like they do mostly take out. However, it was good and exactly what we needed.
What I didn’t know about The Undertow was that it was part of a trio of bars in a building called The Century Grand. In addition to the Tiki-themed Undertow, there is also a New Orleans style speakeasy bar called The Grey Hen, and a 1930’s train car themed bar called Platform 18. I immediately wished we had also made a reservation for Platform 18, where 1930’s clad wait staff serve cocktails of the same era in a bar made to look like an old train dining car. While you sit, scenes of the countryside flash by the “windows” next to your booth, making you feel like you are actually on a train. Getting a reservation at Platform 18 is now my number one priority for a second trip to Phoenix.
On to The Undertow: This bar is just as impressive as the concept for Platform 18, if not more so. After checking in for your reservation, your host leads you into a dark room designed to look like the inside of an old ship. Two-person porthole tables line the sides of the room, and just like the train car theme bar, there is an ocean sailing loop that plays scenes through your porthole “window” to make you feel like you are on a moving ship.
Even more fantastic is that the hour-long loop of porthole view doesn’t stay the same. You leave a dock on a sunny day, pass some islands, the sun sets, the stars come out, and then a storm comes. During the storm part lightning strikes and thunder sounds in the bar, and all the lights in the whole bar flicker. We were really impressed with the whole dramatic and theatrical immersive experience.
To go along with the ambiance and experience are some of the best cocktails we’ve ever had. The menu is extensive, and an entire book full of stories and drawings. I don’t think you would have time to read the whole menu and it’s stories in your 90 minute reservation slot unless you were by yourself and really focusing on doing just that. It seemed to tell the tale of a zombie plague on a ship, from what I could skim.
Looking at their website, it appears that the menus are “chapters” of a book, and the stories and cocktails change with each new “chapter” of the book. I wish I could remember exactly what we had, but I can’t 100% pinpoint them exactly. I can tell you that they were from Chapter Seven. To be honest, the amount of choices on the menu was overwhelming, and they all sounded amazing. It was hard to narrow it down. Asking your server which ones are their favorites is a good way to go.
A few things to know about planning your trip to The Undertow:
- Reservations are strongly recommended. The further in advance you can book if you only have a specific day you can go (especially for Friday and Saturday night reservations), the better. Reservations release 30 days prior at noon each day.
- Porthole tables seat two only. The other seats available are bar seats, and there are two booths for up to 6 guests.
- Your reservation is for 90 minutes, and they are strict about that. Your server will let you know when you have time to order one more drink before closing out. Typically 90 minutes is good for two drinks per person.
- There is a pre-paid $20 beverage minimum per person when you make your reservation, with a $3 processing fee. The $20 fee per person is deducted from your bill. They also have a strict cancellation policy, and you will need to cancel your reservation at least 8 hours or more (online) or you will forfeit the deposit.
This is a lot more strict than other Tiki bar reservations we have had (first time we’ve ever had to make a deposit!), but it is worth it.
Thoroughly impressed with The Undertow experience, we took a Lyft back to our hotel to get some rest before our early flight the next morning. Or so we thought…
Day 2: A cancelled flight and an unexpected fun day in the Melrose District
Just when we were getting ready to head down for our shuttle to the airport, I got an email that our flight was cancelled. There was no rebooking offered, and when I tried calling the customer service number in the email, I was told that the wait to speak to an agent was approximately 5 hours.
We figured the best thing to do was to just go to the airport anyway, talk to the booking agent in person and see what we could figure out. We waited in line for about an hour and a half at the Alaska Air counter, and were told it had something to do with the flight being short staffed and/or Airforce One visiting Seattle the day before and cancelling a bunch of flights to clear the airport.
The best they could do for us after a lot of searching in their systems for all the flights back to Seattle was fly us back to Portland the next day and we would then rent a car and drive the rest of the way home. We were provided with a free hotel room, a couple meal vouchers for airport food, and told we could submit a reimbursement claim for the rental car and gas (this part was true, although it took a couple months to get reimbursed).
While we weren’t happy about getting home a day late, we decided to make the most of our extra day of vacation with a free hotel room.
We ate breakfast at the airport with our meal vouchers, then took the free shuttle to our new hotel and dropped off our bags. I scanned Google Maps for ideas on what to do for the day. I searched “vintage stores” and found several in one area…along with a couple gay bars. Could it be? A gayborhood in Phoenix?
Hot tip: If you want to find cool stuff in a city, find the gayborhood.
The gayborhood in Phoenix is the Melrose District, as we soon discovered. The main drag is on N 7th Ave, north of W Indian School Road. We took an Uber to one of the vintage stores we found on the map, Rewind Vintage & Antiques. Rewind Vintage had an impressive Indie record collection, and is run by an extremely nice couple who offered to mail us some records that we bought for the price of postage and record mailers. They also gave us some great tips on the neighborhood.
Paddy needed some coffee, and our new friends at Rewind Vintage raved about Copper Star Coffee just up the block, so that was our next stop. Paddy said their Americano was delicious. I had their lemonade, which was homemade and very refreshing. All of their baked goods and bagels looked amazing as well. If you are a looking for great coffee in Phoenix, Copper Star Coffee is the place to go.
Next, we crossed the street over to the Retro Ranch, which we would also recommend.
The Retro Ranch had a very impressive collection of antiques and vintage clothes. We didn’t find anything we couldn’t live without, but if we lived in Phoenix, we would definitely be regulars here.
All the rifling through antiques and vintage clothes made us hungry, so we wandered into Short Leash Hot Dogs & Rollover Doughnuts. Short Leash has a fantastic back patio to lounge in with sun or shade, and a variety of seating options.
The hot dogs and doughnuts are also delicious. I had the Lady hot dog with a chicken sausage, which comes on naan flatbread with sauteed onions, chipotle cheese sauce and fried pickles. Paddy had the Brat Stuffed Pretzel with a bratwurst, sauerkraut, onion, bacon, swiss cheese, and spicy mustard on their homemade pretzel roll. I couldn’t resist getting a doughnut to share–with peanut butter glaze, chocolate, and peanuts. Everything was decadent and delightful.
The lovely couple at Rewind Vintage also recommended the Thunderbird Lounge, which is a 1970’s throwback bar just off of 7th.
The Thunderbird Lounge also has a pretty awesome outdoor patio, but the interior is pretty darn groovy.
If you were a kid who grew up in the 70’s or 80’s and liked to go to the arcade, this place is your jam. Paddy was pretty stoked to play a few old games from his childhood.
They even had a vintage (and working!) Simon Says game that I remembered playing at my Grandma’s house in the 80s. It wasn’t as fun as I remembered.
The Thunderbird Lounge has lots of events in the evenings and live music. If we had some more time in Phoenix, I’d be into checking out what they’ve got going on.
After the hot dogs, beers, and doughnuts as well as walking around in the sun, we felt like it was time to go check into our hotel and take a nap.
For dinner that evening, I had found what looked like a pretty awesome Mexican seafood place called Mariscos Playa Hermosa in the (Douglas?) neighborhood of Phoenix. It was only a 10 minute Uber ride from our hotel near the airport.
Mariscos Playa Hermosa is popular! There was about a 20 minute wait for a table, but it was worth it. Their website says they just celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2022. It is clearly a favorite with locals and for celebrations.
The menu looked amazing, and we wanted to try everything, but we couldn’t take any leftovers with us. They also take margaritas to the next level. We ordered the Mango Diablo, which is blended with mango, chamoy, Tajin, and tequila, and the Spicy Miami – a spicy watermelon margarita rimmed with Tajin and served with a watermelon paleta. The Mango Diablo came with a chamoy candy stick.
For dinner, we shared oysters and the Tostada Embarazada (a “pregnant” tostada) which had a ceviche mix of seafood and avocado on a crispy tostada.
We only ended up ordering off the appetizer menu. There were so many things we wanted to try but we were full after finishing that pile of ceviche with the tostadas and crackers that went with it. Everything looked so good, and with how busy they were–you know that their seafood is always fresh.
Note: The neighborhood that Mariscos Playa Hermosa is near that we drove through between the Hilton Garden Inn Phoenix Airport and the restaurant looked pretty rough. Best to stick to taking an Uber or Lyft there and back and staying close to the restaurant while waiting for your ride home. That said, don’t let that scare you into missing this place. It is fabulous!
Phoenix surprised us. We hadn’t heard many good things about this city, so we weren’t expecting much. I wouldn’t say it’s a top destination, but if we end up going through there on another trip to Arizona we wouldn’t be too sad about it. On a second trip to Phoenix, it would be nice to have a car during the day to spend some more time in the Melrose District again and check out some of the other parts of town. As for nightlife, our number one priority would be a reservation at Platform 18, along with a second visit to The Undertow. It would be fun to check out what the Thunderbird Lodge has going on at night, and we will absolutely be going back to Mariscos Playa Hermosa HUNGRY.
Do you have some tips for things to do and see in Phoenix? If so please add to the comments below!