When the Phoenix Light Rail started construction along Central Avenue, business owners were very concerned – and rightfully so – about the impact on business revenues. Many businesses are suffering and some have trimmed hours or reduced staff to at least keep the doors open and dollars flowing. In one case, a business simply moved to another location that was only a few blocks away from its original Central Avenue location.
China Chili was located just north of Osborn on Central in a small strip mall. The place was very small, but the reports were that the food was very good and there were some very excellent dishes on the menu. When it closed, there was a pall cast over people who liked the small eatery. But that pall turned to sunshine when people saw the sign go up at 3rd Street and Flower announcing that China Chili would, like a Phoenix, rise again.
The location change seems to have been a very wise move because the new digs are colossal in size and much more inviting than the old location that now sits vacant with bulldozers and pylons as its only guests. Dave and Neil were craving Chinese food, so I suggested we check out China Chili to see if the reports were accurate.
We pulled into the parking lot in the back of the building since the front parking lot only had about four spaces which were taken. Upon entering, I was amazed at how huge the restaurant was inside. There was a mass of tables and plenty of servers and bus staff racing to and fro with dishes of Chinese food. The hostess took us right to a table and we were handed menus and water was brought by a staff member.
A friendly server wasn’t far behind and she took our drink order of two Diet Cokes ($1.50 each) and one Iced Tea ($1.50). She departed and we debated about our entrees and our appetizers. After some discussion and negotiation, we decided on the Boiled Wontons ($5.95), the Pot Stickers ($4.25) and two orders of the Vegetable Egg Rolls ($2.00 per order) for our appetizers. Neil chose the Curried Chicken ($8.50) for his entree, Dave ordered the Sesame Chicken ($9.50) and I wanted the Kung Pao Beef ($8.95).
After getting our drinks and placing our orders, Neil, Dave and I talked about how pleasant the interior was with its light fixtures, openness and earth tone colors. There was a sort of frenetic energy flowing as we would see servers whisk back and forth with food, drinks and tubs to clear used, empty tables. I felt it was a great step up for the owners over the old place.
Our Vegetable Egg Rolls arrived hot and fresh with a side of sweet plum sauce for dipping. We had to wait for the egg rolls to cool just a bit but when we finally got around to trying them, we like them. The vegetables were tender crisp and the simple preparation of napa cabbage, celery and onions was quite good. I also like the fact they kept them in the deep fryer a bit longer than normal so that they were a bit darker in color than most egg rolls, but also richer in flavor. The addition of the plum sauce only made them that much better.
Our Pot Stickers arrived and they looked like most other pot stickers I have had. I was a bit surprised that they were not served with the traditional soy-based sauce, but another bowl of the plum sauce. The pot stickers were well prepared and competently cooked, but they were fairly institutional. No complaints, but nothing really special or exciting about them.
When the Boiled Wontons arrived, I was quite surprised. In a large bowl, nine plump wontons were swimming in what can only be described as a spicy peanut soup. Our server split the soup between the three of us and we each allowed it to cool before taking our first bite. When I did get to experience the appetizer, it truly rocked my world. It was fantastic on so many levels that I regretted not getting a large bowl just to myself. The wontons were filled with pork and the wrappers were firm and not at all soggy after sitting in the sauce. The sauce was wonderfully spicy and had a rich peanut taste. My first comment to Dave and Neil was to beg them not to tell Dad about this dish or else he would drag me here three times a week. It was just an incredible appetizer. Creative, unique, and delicious.
After a short lull between the appetizers and our entrees, Dave’s Sesame Chicken arrived and I thought it looked grand. White meat chicken had been breaded and then sliced. It was then topped with a somewhat translucent brown sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Dave was disappointed with the dish. He said he expected something difference and although he said he thought it tasted good, it just didn’t do anything for him. Neil and I, on the other hand, thought the dish was great. We loved the tender chicken and the slightly sweet sauce. I thought the portion size was also quite the value because there was a substantial amount of chicken on the plate.
Neil’s Curried Chicken was a mix of diced chicken, carrots and onions all stir-fried and then topped with a Chinese curry sauce. I am not normally a Chinese curry fan, but I thought this dish was pretty good. The meat was tender and the veggies were perfect. Neil and Dave also liked the dish, but wished that it has been substantially more spicy. I think that would have improved the dish significantly as well. It wasn’t by any means poorly executed, it just needed a little push to move it from the good to the very good category.
My Kung Pao Beef contained slices of beef, dried chili peppers, onions, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and peanuts which were tossed in a savory and salty sauce. The beef and accompaniments were all well prepared, but the dish seemed exceptionally tame in spice. The only kick of heat I would get was the occasional fleck of chili pepper that made its way onto my fork. The dish itself had a good flavor, but the kitchen really seemed to play it safe on the spice level, which was a bit odd to me considering how the Boiled Wontons caused each of us to break out in sweat. I just didn’t fine the dish as appealing as it could have been.
We finished our meal and requested our check. The total was $49.68 including tax. I felt it was a good value. The service was attentive and friendly, although we, once again, experienced the disappearing server thing between finishing our meal and getting our meal. Overall, we enjoyed our meal, but we all felt there was inconsistency in the cooking.
Several people have told me that China Chili has some of the most “authentic” Chinese food in the Valley. That may or may not be the case (because “authentic” is a word with a different definition depending on who is calling something authentic), but I found the kitchen playing it safe in some instances and taking off the gloves in others. I will return to China Chili because I am probably forever addicted to the Boiled Wontons and there were some other interesting items on the menu that I would like to try.
However, I think China Chili should take off the gloves completely and be as adventurous as they were with the wontons.
302 East Flower Street
Phoenix, AZ 85012
Hours: Monday through Thursday – 11 AM to 3 PM and 4:30 PM to 9 PM; Friday – 11 AM to 3 PM and 4:30 PM to 10 PM; Saturday – 12 Noon to 10 PM; Sunday – 4:30 PM – 9:00 PM
Notes: Choose the parking lot in the back.
Alcohol: Full bar service.