Wine, urban farms, craft breweries, local olive oil, and farm-to-table restaurants dot the landscape of Arizona’s Valley of the Sun. There is so much foodie goodness sprouting from the once-parched desert that the communities of Mesa, Gilbert and Queen Creek have put together a Fresh Foodie Trail for visitors to follow. This desert has more to offer than prickly pear cactus juice and dates. You’ll be surprised at what you encounter.
A compact downloadable brochure lists the stops along the trail. You’ll enjoy perusing the brochure to put together your own itinerary. But for Real Food Traveler, I decided to focus on three stops that surprised even me, a former desert dweller.
The Farm at South Mountain: Breakfast under the Mesquite Tree
Breakfast at the Morning Glory Café, hidden at the back of The Farm, property turned out to be a surprise. The Farm, developed on lands with naturally rich soil from an ancient riverbed, houses a charming mix of gardens, restaurants, and markets.
While many are familiar with the event space in the grassy pecan orchard and the deli at the front of the farm, it wasn’t until we were invited to breakfast that I realized there was much more to the property. We wandered past plots of flowers and vegetables soaking up their morning irrigation, past the succulent and cactus shed and past the farmers’ market and CSA stand.
As we approached the Morning Glory Café, strong aromas of an Arizona breakfast drew us in–eggs, chorizo, onions, chile. The café is known for their house baked muffins and pastries, locally made sausages and seasonal omelets filled with fresh produce from their fields.
The huevos rancheros didn’t disappoint. Their version included crisp corn tortillas topped with two over-easy eggs, cheddar cheese and tomatillo sauce served with a side of refried Arizona tepary beans and home fries. (Tepary beans are a dried bean grown in the Southwest that tolerates desert heat, drought and alkaline soils.) It was relaxing sitting under the huge mesquite tree listening to the doves coo. As the café has only outdoor seating, it is closed in the summer.
After breakfast, we wandered through the shop featuring local products. The Farm had much to offer on a quiet spring morning and it’s worth taking time to explore.
Agritopia: Planned Community with Agriculture at its Heart
Another surprising find on the Fresh Foodie Trail was a suburban community located just outside Phoenix in the community of Gilbert that features a huge focus on urban agriculture.
The New York Times commended the development, calling it the “leading agri-hood in the United States.” Agritopia is a master planned community that preserves the agricultural roots of the area and integrates farm fresh goodness into every aspect of the community. The on-site organic farm produces about 100 varieties of fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. We saw peaches ripening on the trees and date palms.
Visionary Joe Johnston established Agritopia in 2000 on the property where he grew up. At its center is a working farm, community gardens, Bible-inspired garden, a farm-to-table restaurant and coffee shop with luscious baked goods. The mid-century modern house that is now Joe’s Farm Grill is where his family lived. The larger family farm has given rise to a suburban neighborhood with more than 450 Craftsman-style homes. Residents are often seen purchasing eggs, lettuce, onions, and more from the self-service farm stand.
As you walk around Agritopia, you’ll likely notice that pathways and sidewalks connect homes, farms, gardens, a school, parks, and commercial areas into a seamless network reminiscent of a traditional village. There is even an assisted living facility on the property.
Agritopia hosts dinners in the field and Guy Fieri of “Diners,Drive Ins and Dives” TV fame has visited Joe’s Grill. There’s always something happening at Agritopia. What’s next? Joe is in the midst of an artisan collective project. In the repurposed farm building there will be a small winery and distillery and new eateries along with 12 makers creating everything from coffee roasters to kitchen tools. Barnone is scheduled to open this fall.
True Garden: Hidden Futuristic Vertical Farm
Last but not least, the Fresh Foodie Trail led us to… a pharmacy? Well, that is what you notice in this nondescript Mesa, Arizona, block of businesses. The compounding Pharmacy business is what inspired the creation of a futuristic 5,000 square foot vertical aeroponic urban farm.
Pharmacist Troy Albright worked with patients with complex health problems. Simply put, he believed that good food… better food, would tremendously enhance their lives. He researched what was available and landed on a vertical aeroponic Tower Garden technology. Visualize this: ceiling high white towers with planting slots where produce grows without soil year round in the hot desert.
Behind the pharmacy we were introduced to a unique facility, operated by solar power, which grows local, living produce available year-round. As we toured the futuristic gardens with farmer Susie Cannon, a transplant from Washington State, she convinced us of the quality of the produce by handing us leaves as we walked through the towers. This was the crispest, richest (strong plant taste) food I had encountered… way beyond farmer’s market good.
In the community’s cool greenhouse, everything is controlled. The aeroponic plants grown on Tower Gardens are more nutrient-dense than regular produce; they grow extremely fast; and the produce is sold with the roots still intact so it lasts longer. And, important in the desert, this way of growing uses 95% less water than traditional farming.
True Garden in Mesa holds a weekly market for the community on-site, sells at local farmers markets, runs a CSA, sells to local chefs, and operates a business selling the tower technology to homes and businesses. Farmer Susie told us that she also gardens with towers at home. I can certainly see why.
Travel the Fresh Foodie Trail
We learned, we ate, we imbibed, and we sampled the bounty of seasonal goods available for visitors to enjoy. The Fresh Foodie Trail winds visitors through Mesa and beyond into the towns of Gilbert and Queen Creek enjoying such delights as peaches, olive oil, wineries and breweries. You may be surprised at what you find in Arizona. –Story and photos by Elizabeth R Rose, RFT Contributor
If You Go
Fresh Foodie Trail Website