Anatomy of Cheap Eats

Subscribers to PHOENIX Magazine received their July issue a couple of weeks ago. The rest of Phoenix will see the issue this week when it hits newsstands.

This issue is particularly special to me.

Since June of 2008, I’ve been writing monthly restaurant critiques for the magazine, plus two regular columns, one on restaurant desserts, called Sweet Spot, and another called Local Product, featuring food or wine produced by Arizonans.

Occasionally, I get a special project. Last year I tackled a comprehensive Mexican Food Guide story featuring 77 restaurants for the May, 2011 issue.

This year, my assignment was Cheap Eats. Although I knew it was coming as early as February of this year, I got the specs for the assignment on March 26… and the deadline was May 7. (Magazines typically work at least 2 months in advance.)

I had six weeks to research, eat, and write. S-I-X weeks! And this was on top of my regular work. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, but that’s never stopped me before, so I jumped on the task with abandon, an empty stomach and plenty of blind faith.

I thought you might like to know how it came about, and how we ended up with “369 Deliriously Delicious Dishes for $12 or Less!”

It started with me and the editors agreeing to “what is cheap?” and what categories we’d cover, such as Asian, Breakfast, Burgers, and Sandwiches, and of course, how many pages the editors could dedicate to one story.

We settled on meals that cost less than $12. We ended up with 19 categories spread across 20 pages of the magazine. The number of entries per category was determined by how many great places I could find and vet. Some ended up with 12, others with just one.

And yes, I went to every single place mentioned in the article. And to a bunch more that didn’t make the cut.

In all, I visited 128 restaurants. I called an additional 40 or so, and learned for whatever reason, they wouldn’t qualify against our parameters.

During the research phase, I pulled “data” from several sources. I started with my own knowledge of dining in metro Phoenix garnered from living and working here for the past 16 years. The editors contributed their favorites, too.

Then I talked to friends, neighbors, foodies, chefs, and pretty much anyone I could get to listen to my plan of attack.

Now that I had a spreadsheet of places to consider, it was time to hit the streets.

I mapped out the restaurants I needed to visit, grouping them by address.

The master spreadsheet was my lifeline. I sorted the potential restaurants by city and then by zip code, and figured out the most efficient route to hit as many as I could in a single day.

I’d start with breakfast (or two) and move to lunch (or three), and then hit a snack stop and finally an early dinner (or two).

For several weeks, I hit five to seven restaurants a day. Sometimes I met up with friends (you know who you are) to help me order enough of the menu to get a feel for the joint.

I always brought a cooler for leftovers, and late at night, I’d slink to the refrigerator and nibble some more.

Serendipitously, this massive eat-fest happened at the exact same time we remodeled our kitchen.

So while I was without a floor, a sink, a cooktop or counters, I had a refrigerator stuffed with the spoils of my travels.

As the receipts piled up, I realized I needed to do more than just stuff myself silly everyday. I needed to plant my rear in a chair and start writing…and writing.

I’d finish a category and send it to the editors. I also kept the spreadsheet updated and sent that to the magazine weekly, with check marks by the restaurants who made the cut, and a “no” beside the ones that didn’t, along with an explanation of why. Maybe the food wasn’t terrific, or maybe it was too expensive for what it was.

There were last minute substitutions and additions. Lee’s Sandwiches made the cut because they are damn cheap. I argued against including them because they weren’t “local.” But the editors countered: they’re damn cheap — and good, and this Lee’s was the only Arizona outlet from the California chain.

All told, I turned in nearly 4,000 words.

While I was eating and writing, the editors were polishing my words. The art department was arranging photo shoots and then page layouts, coming up with some incredible page designs.

Yes, those are my words but the visual presentation is what makes this story fun to read.

And now, I hope that if you live in Phoenix, you’ll pick up a copy and let us know what you think. I’m sure I missed things, so I’d like to know that, too. Leave a comment here, or write to the editor at the magazine (the address is below).

I love that Phoenix has a diverse culinary scene from haute dining to hot dogs. There are all kinds of delicious, inexpensive gems in this valley if you look.

Mostly I hope this guide points you to some belly-filling bargains worth the bite.








PHOENIX Magazine

15169 North Scottsdale Road, Ste. 310

Scottsdale AZ 85254

15 replies
  1. Justin Lee
    Justin Lee says:

    Wow. Love seeing all of that planning, and paperwork. It’s a great piece, with great content – all of your research reads into it.

    Also, kudos to Mark Lyczynski. His images always add depth.

  2. Linda
    Linda says:

    What work and what fun. I am a subscriber but have only had time to look at the cover since it arrived, you know why. But I plan to take it with me on a plane next weekend when I fly out of this hot hell and read it while drinking Rose and sitting by a lake in the North Woods of Wisconsin. Then I will try as many of your cheap eats as I can when I return. Already looking forward to reading and eating!

    • Gwen Ashley Walters
      Gwen Ashley Walters says:

      Ha! Linda… yes, I know why… you’ve been busy teaching the next generation how to cook…and keeping up with your blog, too! So glad you are escaping the inferno and hope you have a fabulous time!

    • Gwen Ashley Walters
      Gwen Ashley Walters says:

      Thanks for commenting, Wally… There isn’t a vegan/vegetarian category, per se, but many, many of the restaurants profiled have vegetarian (and some vegan) options that fit in the “cheap eats” less-than-$12 parameter…especially the Mexican and Asian restaurants. I have pitched a “healthy eats” cover story to the editors, which I am especially hopeful for after six weeks of eating burgers, pizzas, and such.

  3. Cooks_Books
    Cooks_Books says:

    As usual, I can’t wait to read the next issue of PHOENIX Magazine. Though I may be even more impatient this time. Guess I better go buy a copy now. I buy one every month, because I keep forgetting to subscribe… But you do realize, right, that you’ve now disillusioned so many people who think writing about food and restaurants is a fun hobby/pastime? 😉

    • Gwen Ashley Walters
      Gwen Ashley Walters says:

      Ha! Thanks for commenting…. you really should subscribe! It’s cheaper than buying an issue at a time. Food writing is fun. Even more fun when you get paid for it 😉

  4. Teresa
    Teresa says:

    Great job, Gwen!
    Love the behind the scenes insight from this post….truly enhances the magazine article, showing even more of the details that is involved in being the great food critic that you are! Fabulous work, as always! 🙂


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  1. […] Remember my July cover story for PHOENIX Magazine called Cheap Eats? I wrote about it here. […]

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