By Jeff Kronenfeld, June 2019 Issue.
Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. is one of the newest additions to the increasingly crowded downtown Phoenix restaurant and bar scene.
The first location of Arizona Wilderness opened in Gilbert in 2013. It quickly established itself as a local watering hole and even drew international acclaim, earning the number one spot for new breweries on ratebeer.com, besting beermakers from Deutschland (Germany) to Doucheland (San Diego).
Its food menu may be small, but its beer selection is as vast and deep as the Grand Canyon — and both are packed with local flavor. Whether you’re swallowing Padre Kino or swimming in Dirty Hop Water, the delightful and often surprising selection of craft beers are radiant as the star in the center of our state’s flag.
While its large patio featuring fancy picnic tables and Adirondack chairs is meant to invoke a German beer garden, the vein-like map of desert waterways and in-house crafted beers — with names drawing on the Copper State’s geography, biology and history — let you know where you are. That is, in case the winged millennials flashing selfies outside Monorchid across the street aren’t enough. The herringbone brick and gravel patio offer a rustic charm and plenty of shade, plus the misters spray lightly enough that they cool without soaking reading materials or electronics. The big tables offer room for parties, but also plenty of space to perch and people watch for the less-social.
The menu may be simple, but ordering proved somewhat more complicated. You can get beer either from the outside bar housed in shipping containers or from the long one inside, which have slightly different selections. It gives you plenty of happy yeasty options, but you have to create separate tabs at both, which was inconvenient, as was the fact you had to wait in another line and open another tab to order food. I can only imagine how frustrating this could become on a crowded First Friday. Despite this, once the amber fluids flowed and patio lights shined, I wouldn’t care if I had to scale a class five climb to keep it coming. The staff were helpful, particularly with selecting from among the 26 beers on tap inside.
In order to obtain an adequate sample size, my dining partner and I sacrificed sobriety and ordered a half-dozen brews. Since the Salome Wilderness is one of my favorite hiking destinations in the state, I naturally ordered the wood-fermented Salome Saison. With a surprisingly creamy texture and earthy flavor, tasting this beer was the oral equivalent of an escape room: mysterious, diverting and not for everyone. Also, it’s fun to say. Go ahead, try it … I’ll wait.
Named in honor of the new spot’s urban local, La Ciudad is an IPA featuring Citra and Mosaic hops. It wasn’t too bitter and even had a slight sweetness, complemented nicely by wood and citrus notes. This unique brew is a stand out. It’s an excellent choice for those turned off by the extreme bitterness of most IPAs.
The Chocolate Bunny, an imperial milk porter, was strong on the chocolate but not crude-oil thick. Like La Ciudad, it plays against type and is hence an excellent porter for the non-porter aficionado. The Nicaraguan cacao nibs and Madagascar Vanilla helped make it a perfect dessert beer/nightcap. All the beers were full of surprising tastes and I highly recommend trying different kinds, even if you don’t normally like them. The beers here are really something special and I will be back to try more.
Though there are only eight entrees and six “shareables” on the menu, everything we tried was tasty, well-prepared and featured local ingredients. I ordered the Arizona Trail Burger, which piled thick-cut bacon, pepper jack, roasted jalapenos and sweet n’ spicy sauce on a perfectly medium rare patty from the Arizona Grass Raised Beef Company. The side of duck-fat fries dusted with rosemary and salt — which can be ordered separately smothered in various delights — were tasty and all together quite filling. The house-made ketchup was particularly good, not too sweet and complementing the fries nicely.
My dining companion had the Counter Culture Black Bean Burger, which was four inches of fried goodness. Who said four inches can’t be a mouthful? It balanced well with the avocado and spicy sauce, and also came with a side of fries.
In glutinous addition, I ordered the Drumsticks Confit and my companion the Buffalo Cauliflower. The five plump drumsticks were a standout that honestly left me wondering why more places don’t serve these things? Though it may cause Teressa Bellissimo — known for founding the wing phenomenon with her husband Frank at their Buffalo restaurant — to roll over in her upstate New York grave, in every respect these drumsticks are superior to chicken wings. They had a crispy exterior accented by a savory dry rub, plus a juicy interior. Their coup de grace is the bare bone sticking out, which provides a non-messy means to hold them. Combined with the dry rub, my beard and fingers remained pleasantly free of sticky sauce and so I didn’t have to use a small forest of napkins to make myself decent afterwards. They have a number of sauce options. I opted for the house-made ranch and aioli, neither of which disappointed. The cauliflower’s crunchy exterior was glazed in spicy sauce, providing a tasty and healthy appetizer. All around the food was great and the menu provided good options for carnivores and herbivores.
As the name may imply, the founders of Arizona Wilderness are both outdoor enthusiasts with a deep reverence for Arizona’s natural spaces and the nonprofits, such as the Nature Conservancy, which help protect them. Throughout the restaurant you’ll find plaques informing you about the sustainable practices of their partners and reminding you of the interconnected nature of desert life.
For instance, there is Sinagua Malt, a benefit corporation that works with farmers along the Verde River to plant crops, such as barley, that use less water but are still in high demand. It saves two birds with one stone, allowing farmers to keep growing while letting more water flow through this vital riparian zone, which sustains native fish and hosts of other animals, everything from yellow-billed cuckoos to lowland leopard frogs.
Though every company these days talks the talk on sustainability, founders Jonathan Buford and Patrick Ware seem to walk the walk. Not only is it evident in the many pictures of the two amply-bearded men hiking through wilderness areas covered in red mud and big smiles, but also in the writings of Buford. He waxes poetic as only a brewer can about how in the summer, “leaves beg the sun for its powerful energy,” but by fall they, “abide by the rules of nature by creating sugars for the roots.”
When you can’t make the drive to the real wilderness, drinking and eating in the Arizona Wilderness DTPHX can be the next best thing.