A vacation to Arizona for most means squeezing into Antelope Canyon, lazing at a resort in Scottsdale, or watching their favorite baseball teams face off during Spring Training. Few come to the state for the food alone. But not only is Arizona home to a rising and thriving restaurant scene in cities like Phoenix and Tucson, it’s also an underappreciated producer of an enormous variety of fresh produce and food products. Arizona’s warm, dry climate means that there’s something in-season year-round — peaches in spring, chilies in summer, olives in fall, and citrus in winter to name a few. Rather than just going to a restaurant and ordering a salad, try the bounty at the source by visiting Mesa, the Arizona destination all foodies should have on their bucket list.
Mesa — an aptly named city for farm-to-table enthusiasts — is located just a half-hour from Phoenix. It has a small but lively downtown with a weekly farmers market and plenty of restaurants that show off local food products. But the real draw for visitors is the Fresh Foodie Trail, a collection of food producers cleverly linked together by the tourism board in response to the growing trend of agritourism. A long-popular feature of the European economy, agritourism is the answer to both Americans’ growing desire to learn more about where their food comes from and the need for farmers to generate another source of income. By opening up their doors to the public and entertaining visitors with hands-on experiences and tastings, farmers educate consumers and stoke interest in buying local, farm-grown food for their own tables. A rare example of the elusive win-win.
Mesa’s Fresh Foodie Trail (which also features stops in the nearby small towns of Queen Creek and Gilbert) is extremely family-friendly and doable year-round, but many farms don’t offer tours in the summer when the desert heat can reach up to 110 degrees. For the mildest temperatures and a wide variety of in-season produce, plan your visit between February and April. There are 11 official stops on the trail, so depending on your interests, you could swap in any of the below spots for alternative places like Hayden Flour Mills, The Windmill Winery, or True Garden Urban Farm. But if you only have one day to play agritourist in Mesa, here’s the best way to tackle the Fresh Foodie Trail.
1. Schnepf Farms
To fully immerse yourself in the agricultural spirit of Mesa, skip the chain hotels and expensive Phoenix resorts in favor of staying on a farm. But that doesn’t mean you need to rough it. Sleep in a renovated Airstream trailer at The Cozy Peach, a glamping ground at Schnepf Farms. The trailers are equipped with plush beds, a stylish lounge area, a coffee maker, TV and WiFi, and, yes, a bathroom. Even with the amenities inside your trailer, you’d be better served spending your time outside biking the scenic 300-acre farm, visiting the petting zoo, and collecting fresh produce in the U-Pick garden. Schnepf Farms hosts many seasonal events that see hundreds of attendees, including a blowout Fourth of July party, the Pumpkin and Chili Party in October, and Christmas celebrations in December. A late-winter visit will coincide with the Peach Blossom Festival when the fields are awash with blush pink blooms, but peak peach-picking season doesn’t hit until May. Regardless of the time of year, though, you can guarantee the opportunity to try a slice of the butteriest, juiciest peach pie you’ve ever had at the farm bakery.
Make sure to build in time to your stay for relaxing at the farm and enjoying all it has to offer, but on the day you plan on setting out on the Fresh Foodie Trail, aim to leave the farm early. Fuel up with breakfast without even leaving your bed by ordering trailer-service, choosing between generous portions of French toast, egg dishes, fresh fruit, or sticky cinnamon buns. Take your breakfast on a lawn chair outside your trailer to breathe in the morning farm air, or go back inside to enjoy your bacon in bed before getting ready for the day.
Where: 24610 E Rittenhouse Rd, Queen Creek, AZ 85142
2. Queen Creek Olive Mill
Kick off your culinary trek at Arizona’s only working olive oil farm and mill, Queen Creek Olive Mill. Arrive in time to take the 10:30 AM Olive Oil 101 tour ($7), which is available first-come, first-served for groups under eight. While you wait for the tour to begin, grab a coffee at the in-house roastery Superstition Coffee and browse the store, which sells bottles of olive oil alongside balsamic vinegar, tapenades, hot sauces, stuffed olives, and a host of olive-oil-based spa products that will make you wish you packed a larger suitcase. The 45-minute educational tour is packed with guests, enough to warrant a microphone for the guide out in the grove, but you still get an intimate view of the trees, old stone mill (no longer in use but a nice photo-op), and the machines that press and extract the oil. You’ll learn what extra virgin olive oil actually means (it has to do with the pressing and flavor) and get to try some on the tour, but the more fun tastings are on the store floor where infusions like garlic, chili, and basil, as well as wackier flavors like chocolate and bacon, can be sampled. If you’re still feeling peckish, order an antipasto board and take it out to the outdoor, tree-covered patio.
Where: 25062 S Meridian Rd, Queen Creek, AZ 85142
3. Superstition Farm
A 20-minute drive north brings you to Superstition Farm, a working dairy farm committed to educating tourists about environmentally conscious dairy production, as well as the importance of quality care for the animals. The jam-packed, hour-and-a-half farm tour ($9) includes a demonstration of dairy production at the “Moo-University” tour barn, a guided hayride around the farm, and a stop at the petting zoo filled with rescue animals such as potbelly pigs, miniature donkeys, goats, sheep, and more. Also included in the tour is a tasting at the Milk Bar, which has 12 flavors ranging from delicious (cookies and cream, strawberry) to questionable (grape?). If you packed a cooler bag, you can buy milk, yogurt, eggs, butter, and cheese at the Mooster’s Moo-tique shop. Close out your visit with a cone at the Udder Delights Ice Cream Sundae Bar, which also has a brick-and-mortar location in nearby Gilbert, but does it get better than eating ice cream churned on site?
Where: 25062 S Meridian Rd, Queen Creek, AZ 85142
4. The Orange Patch
The exterior of The Orange Patch, styled like a Wild West general store, is already Instagram bait, but hold off on a full-on photoshoot until you’re out back, wandering the idyllic and fragrant 110-acre citrus farm. Arizona’s low-frost, low-humidity climate — plus a whole lot of sunshine — makes it an ideal place to grow citrus, and you can try juicy slices of everything from classic navel and Valencia oranges to Rio red grapefruits and tangelos in the store. Peak season for production is in January and February, but you can enjoy the colorful blossoms later in the spring. Take a tour of the groves to learn about the picking process, pose underneath the orange trees with the Superstition Mountains in the distance, then cool off with a glass of fresh-squeezed juice inside and buy a few of your favorite citrus for the road.
Where: 2717 E Lehi Rd, Mesa, AZ 85213
5. Jalapeño Bucks
A short drive around the corner from The Orange Patch is Jalapeño Bucks, which proudly displays a sign saying it’s not Kansas City-style barbecue, or Carolina-style barbecue, or Memphis-style barbecue, or any other style you’re familiar with — Japaleño Bucks makes Arizona-style barbecue. Now, ask the majority of Arizonans what exactly that means, and they probably couldn’t tell you a consistent answer. At Jalapeño Bucks, it means a strong Mexican influence, a liberal amount of green chilies, and generous sides of chips and salsa and refried beans instead of mac and cheese and baked beans. A safe bet would be the green chili and shredded beef burrito or a red chili pork quesadilla. But those daring enough to order the signature dish — a peanut butter, jelly, and BBQ brisket sandwich — are rewarded for their bravery. Sweet, salty, ridiculously messy (and unexpectedly nostalgic for someone who grew up eating bacon and peanut butter on toast), the only thing about this giant sandwich you’ll regret is not opting to share.
Where: 3434 N Val Vista Dr, Mesa, AZ 85213
6. Agritopia and Barnone
Finish out the day at Agritopia, an urban agriculture community in Gilbert with an 11-acre organic farm at its heart. There are several eateries on-site, including the popular Joe’s Farm Grill, but assuming you’re still recovering from Jalapeño Bucks, walk around Barnone (pronounced bar-none, not barn-one) instead. This craftsmen collective is housed in a repurposed airplane hangar and features shops such as Lettercraft (wood-burned decor and laser-cut wood gifts), Prickly Pear Paper (adorable greeting cards and prints), and Everybody Loves Flowers (floral arrangements).
Wind down at Garage-East, an experimental wine bar serving traditional Arizona-made wine and fermented fruit drinks. Try the bittersweet Sonora Spritz, made with its own vibrant orange take on Campari. Beer more your thing? Barnone is also home to 12 West Brewing Co., which makes funky sours, fruity IPAs, and crisp ales. Both the winery and brewery don’t serve food but have a bring-your-own-food policy that allows you to bring in a wood-fired pizza from Fire and Brimstone (also in Barnone), order delivery straight to the table, or, if you’ve played it right and collected goodies at each of the stops along the Fresh Foodie Trail, dig into a little makeshift, farm-to-table picnic spread.
Where: 3000 E Ray Rd, Gilbert, AZ 85296