Beginning in the 1940s, Phoenix’s Chinatown disappeared largely without a trace. Today, the US Airways arena complex sits in its stead. However, before we can dismiss the original downtown Phoenix Chinatown completely, there is one significant reminder that Chinatown survives. Sing High Café was established in 1928, and while, like its Chinatown neighbors, it vacated its original premises, it only moved a short distance to the west, and remains in operation to this day on Madison Street. Sing High continues to serve Americanized Chinese food reminiscent of mid-20th century Cantonese tastes, though it has also updated parts of its menu to current trends. In this regard, Phoenix is fortunate to have a link to the past, mere steps away from the skyscrapers of downtown Phoenix.
Still, these days the term “Phoenix Chinatown” is most closely associated with a development known as the COFCO Chinese Cultural Center, just off the edge of Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, and particularly the shopping area of the complex which contains Chinese stores and restaurants (Indeed, COFCO’s website is phxchinatown.com). COFCO Chinese Cultural Center was developed by the Chinese government in the late 1990s in the hopes that it would be the anchor of a new Phoenix Chinatown. However, if you think that COFCO is the current day equivalent of Chinatown in the Phoenix area and the place to go for an array of authentic Chinese restaurants, you are mistaken. Don’t expect a wide variety of restaurant choices that the “Chinatown” reference conjures up, as there are no other Chinese businesses near COFCO center. When the shopping center first opened, there was a wider selection of restaurants, including two large Chinese restaurant anchors. But the restaurant cast has diminished to fewer than a handful of selections, with both anchor locations abandoned. The remaining restaurants do serve good and authentic Chinese fare; Szechwan Palace offers a nice variety of Sichuan dishes, including some excellent desserts, and Beijing Garden provides an outpost for this much less common regional cuisine (at least in North America). But beware of the Americanized Chinese menu at both of these restaurants. In fact, the dual menu system is a major caution throughout the Phoenix area where many restaurants have separate Americanized and authentic Chinese menus. You might not even see the authentic Chinese menu without asking for it. A small Chinese bakery and a fast food counter in the mall’s Chinese supermarket round out the Chinese food options in COFCO.
Even if Phoenix’s “Chinatown” isn’t the place to go for a broad array of authentic Chinese food, there’s plenty to choose from elsewhere. As with the other cities I have profiled in this series, you just have to know which outer suburbs hide the good Chinese food. In the case of Phoenix, the largest concentration is 20 miles to the southeast, centered around the city of Chandler. While the choice Chinese restaurants in this area is not as numerous as some of the other cities, the quality is quite high — certainly comparable to New York and Houston, though not to the level of Los Angeles or San Francisco.
In a familiar refrain that resonates throughout Chinese American communities across the United States, in the beginning the good authentic Chinese food was strictly Cantonese. Perhaps the dean of these restaurants in Chandler is C Fu Gourmet on Warner Road, which has served dim sum at lunch and featured a Hong Kong-style seafood menu for many years. You can also get this same great combination of dim sum at lunch and Hong Kong-style food at dinner in Chandler at China King on Ray Road and Phoenix Palace on Dobson Road. But my favorite Cantonese restaurants in the area, Tao Garden on Alma School Road and Best Hong Kong on Dobson Road, just over the border in Mesa, both dispense with the dim sum and serve straight Hong Kong/Cantonese food all day long.
As Chinese food has evolved in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City, so it has in Chandler. Two years ago, CNN compiled a list of the Top 50 Chinese Restaurants in the United States and included one Arizona restaurant, China Magic Noodle House on Dobson Road, just steps away from Phoenix Palace. While its inclusion in this Top 50 list was more a nod to geographic correctness in a national listing than true Top 50 status, there is no question that China Magic’s hand-pulled and knife-cut northern Chinese noodles and dumplings are terrific. Meanwhile, San Francisco is not the only place where Sichuan-style fare is making inroads. In Chandler, Szechwan Palace on Alma School Road and Szechwan Garden on Ray Road bring a similar quality of Sichuan-style food to that we see in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and in the case of Szechwan Garden, the familiar Sichuan cold table selections. Chou’s Kitchen on Alma School Road serves Dongbei-style specialties such as flat sheet green bean noodles, representative of this northeastern Chinese cuisine. And while not in the authentic Chinese camp, we should mention that Chandler is also home to Chino Bandido, a Chinese-Mexican fusion restaurant takeout serving interesting creations, such as its very tasty jerk fried rice.
As I’ve alluded, the authentic Chinese eating territory has spilled over from Chandler into neighboring Mesa and even into Tempe. But even these communities are far, far away from much of the Phoenix metropolitan area, or even COFCO center. Fortunately, outposts of good Chinese eating are scattered throughout other parts of greater Phoenix. One of the best Cantonese-style restaurants in the entire Phoenix area is Nee House on Tatum Boulevard in the far reaches of North Phoenix. I find its fish dishes especially good, but the menu is top-notch across the board. For zero ambience dining and no-frills Hong Kong style fare, head to Lucky’s King Wah on Northern Avenue in Glendale. Or in Northwest Phoenix, you can go to Wahsun Chinese Restaurant on 19th Avenue. And if you’re driving along Camelback Road and craving dim sum or Cantonese seafood, there’s probably the best known Chinese restaurant in the Phoenix area, Great Wall, on Camelback Road and 35th Ave. But whichever of the authentic Chinese restaurants you choose, take comfort in knowing that the Chinese food in Phoenix is as good as any of the cities in this series — if you know where to look.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.