A saying attributed to the activist and author Jane Jacobs is that “new ideas need old buildings.” If that’s true, then the 1924 Luhrs Building seems like an ideal incubator for innovation. Among the Luhrs office tenants, that means various start-up firms. On the culinary front, the main attraction on the ground floor of the Luhrs Building is Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour. Cocktails are of course an old concept, but their revival is a contemporary trend, especially when the beverages are paired with Asian-inspired bar food of equivalent quality.
When it was built nearly a century ago, The Luhrs Building was Phoenix’s first ten-story building, a skyscraper by the standards of Phoenix at that time. Almost a century later, this neoclassical brick building is still standing, having survived the demolition of some of its neighbors and the indignity of being mooned by the poorly situated loading docks of CityScape across the street. While the building has long been home to a chain sandwich shop, Bitter & Twisted is an arrival of the past few years, part of a recent revival and renovation of the structure by the Hansji Corporation.
Bitter & Twisted’s address is on Jefferson Street, but its entrance is found just around the corner on Central Avenue. The location is just a block from the Washington / Central light rail platform for westbound trains and its companion Jefferson / First Avenue platform for eastbound trains. Bike racks are found across the street surrounding both halves of the CityScape complex. The branding is not conspicuous and all the seating is indoors, but look for a sign overhead at the corner. Its vintage graphics fit in well with the marble ornamentation of the Luhrs Building.
During peak hours, a bouncer of sorts may sometimes be situated outside. At other times, customers can walk directly into the foyer. Either way, an encounter with a host station is next. Bitter & Twisted is not the sort of bar where one stands in a crowd trying to gain the bartender’s attention. Instead, most seating is assigned and capacity is controlled. The interior has a suitably urbane look with high ceilings, exposed ducts, and tall windows. There is a little kitsch, however, in a giant mural that recalls the posters for the 1958 “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman” movie.
The drink menu is voluminous and is re-invented once a year. Most recently, the theme has been an homage to vintage 8-bit video games, a pixelated world many current drinkers may have inhabited long before Minecraft. The emphasis most recently has been on spirits such as gin and vodka, as seen through cocktails like the Kaffir Lime CC, which is both fizzy and potent with a tart Thai flavor. Even more fruit can be found in concoctions such as the Slap and Tickle and the Love Fruit Medley, or a changing thrifty cocktail that might features peaches, pineapple, and rum.
If darker spirits like bourbon are underrepresented on the current drink menu, be assured that there is a section devoted to classic drinks, and the bartenders can create just about anything requested. While beer and wine are not the emphasis here, they are available on the food menu, and of course there are non-alcoholic beverages offered, many of them creations as original as their high-octane counterparts. In terms of the most basic liquid of all, it’s refreshing, both literally and figuratively, that a carafe of water is placed at each table to keep guests hydrated.
The food at Bitter and Twisted is informal, often shareable, and in many cases influenced by east Asian cuisines. A bowl of Hurricane Popcorn is, as expected, salty, but it also benefits from garlic, sesame, and spicy rice crackers. The Smashed Chips are thick slabs of potato topped with a horseradish cream, a spicy twisted sauce, red pepper puree, avocado, and salsa verde. Amazingly, these disparate flavors complement one another rather than competing. The Grilled Cheese bites recall a small pizza more than a sandwich, with Noble bread as the foundation.
Hearty entree-sized items include two creative burgers. One is a ramen burger, a concept by no means unique to Bitter & Twisted but still relatively uncommon in local restaurants. Pepper jack cheese and jalapeno mayonnaise add Southwestern touches that coexist nicely with a bun fashioned from Asian noodles. The Dragon Dumpling Burger is a mixed patty of ground beef and pork with all sorts of influences. An English muffin and American cheese make it seem familiar, but the meat and accompanying sauce have tastes normally associated with gyoza or shumai.
The Yum Yum noodles are a slightly lighter item with their own complex sauce and the option to add chicken or pork belly for an additional charge. The green salad with white soy dressing is an ideal side dish to balance the meatier, heavier aspects of the menu. It’s artfully presented with shaved cucumbers and beets atop a mixture of lettuces. A green chili mac-and-cheese is vegetarian by default with the option to add bacon. For dessert, the Banoffee Pot is a jar full of creamy pudding given a layer of crunch with banana chips in one of its myriad strata.
It should be noted that although much of the food on the menu is childlike and playful, Bitter & Twisted is an establishment for adults only. Customers don’t have to be as old as the Luhrs Building, but they do have to be at least 21 to enter. Thankfully, given the structure’s endurance, the building is likely to remain standing when today’s youth reach legal drinking age. If Bitter & Twisted is still around as well, it will have by then gone through several iterations of its annual cocktail menu, perhaps even one with a theme of nostalgia for the popular culture of the 2010’s.
1 W. Jefferson St., Phoenix AZ 85003
Washington / Central (westbound) and Jefferson / 1st Ave. (eastbound) stations