I'm convinced there's a conspiracy of dunces out there, hell-bent on making the dining experience as consistently staid and by-the-numbers as an effin' copy of Reader's Digest. Scribblers of that pinkie-in-the-air genre known as "food writing" -- the unfortunate tribe in which I'm lumped -- are by far the worst offenders. They're purveyors of boredom on a grand scale, whom I can't stand to read but am obliged to do so professionally! Suffer from insomnia? Then I direct you to the food section of nearly any publication, after which you'll sleep the sleep of Laci Peterson, God rest her pregnant soul.
Why, if I see one more photo of some crackerjack culinary grad holding a plate of osso buco, I may go postal, people. And how many yuppified, chichi gourmet pizza makers do we really need? Sometimes it seems as if every new restaurant is cut from the same cloth, with nearly interchangeable elements aimed at a certain class of individuals whose SUVs are always shiny and new. And like many a 20-year-old who eschews the cookie-cutter automobiles of today for the glamour and class of a refurbished T-bird or Impala, I, too, see cool in the old school. Or, to put it another way, faded grandeur is better than no grandeur at all.
What's the coolest restaurant in central Phoenix? Yes, there is Durant's, but I have another contender for that crown, Autumn Court Chinese Restaurant. If you've never been there before, you've no doubt passed it an umpteen number of times. From the outside, it looks like some funky gingerbread house, situated as it is next to George & Dragon. But stepping inside is like walking into the fog-draped Chinatown of San Francisco in the 1940s.
Autumn Court Chinese Restaurant
4300 North Central Avenue, Phoenix
Pot stickers: $5.95
Sizzling rice soup: $5.95
Aromatic crispy duck: $10.95
Kung pao chicken: $7.95
Hours: Daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The main dining area is designed like a faux autumn arbor, with a tree's amber-tinged limbs overhead and a waterfall that gurgles over fake masonry, a big white crab seated placidly on one shelf of brick. Worn, brown booths and little, enclosed dining areas are walled in by dark, wooden paneling and glassed-in shelves with all manner of wax and plastic fruits, veggies and dry goods. Red-paper lanterns hang overhead, and the tables are set with kitschy ceramic glasses filled with chopsticks. In the far back is a dark bar area, roofed in overhead with wooden beams, and red lanterns and candles, all of which make you feel like you're deep in the bowels of an ancient Chinese junk, floating in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor.
Jazz is piped in through the stereo as your server, often the affable, black-clad Mr. King, brings you some hot tea and the menu. Right in front of the waterfall is the standard Chinese buffet available during lunchtime, but there's no romance in that, lads. Better to order some pot stickers, and a platter of aromatic, crispy duck, in a savory sauce of hoisin, ground black beans, and rice vinegar. And maybe a bowl of sizzling rice soup for two, with crispy rice added to a thin but flavorful broth filled with shrimp, strips of chicken, slices of pork, bamboo shoots and broccoli.
More exotic Chinese fare can be had for the asking, as can dim sum plates, though the house prefers you order the latter on Saturdays or Sundays, when it's best equipped to meet the demand. Still, the bill of fare, with its standards such as moo shu pork, moo goo gai pan, spicy Szechwan chicken and many others, is 100 times better than what you'll get at mundane, prefab chain joints like Bamboo Club, Pei Wei, and the dreaded P.F. Chang's.
Granted, Autumn Court doesn't deliver the encyclopedic array of authentic Chinese grub offered at places like C-Fu Gourmet in Chandler or Phoenix's Gourmet House of Hong Kong. But if you want dishes such as Peking duck, kung pao chicken, or a plate of piquant sesame chicken, prepared in a traditional manner, Autumn Court is quite reliable. Gourmands such as myself might long for a more involved menu to select from, but if you know your stuff and parlay those specific desires to the management, they are sworn to deliver.
So says Raymond Tang, who has owned and operated Autumn Court since 1982, when he finally abandoned the career in chemistry he'd studied for at college to devote himself to the restaurant biz. Though Tang was born and raised in Hong Kong, at age 16 he joined the rest of his family in Arizona. (They have roots here going back several generations.) His first job was as a waiter working for his uncle's restaurant, the recently defunct China Doll. He was also a bartender at the Trader Vic's in Scottsdale for many years, before taking over the building Autumn Court now inhabits, a former German restaurant and, prior to that, an IHOP.
"My passion was always food and cooking," relates Tang, a handsome gent of average build with jet-black hair and quick, smiling eyes. "People from Hong Kong, we know how to eat and when to eat. Even now, I travel all over, and eat all kinds of food."
Since he's worked in all areas of the industry, and also attended the Culinary Institute of America in California, Tang can tell you how to prepare bananas Foster tableside as well as the ingredients of each item on his menu. Most days and nights, you can catch him on duty, overseeing everything and even stepping in to seat folks and wait on them when necessary. He explains that he's added to the interior decor over time until it reached its current state. There's definitely something worn but charming and comfy about Autumn Court, like an old leather flight jacket or a creased pair of Bass Weejuns.
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Many of you who've made Phoenix your home for several years may know all about Autumn Court. But after taking my own survey of longtime Phoenicians as well as newcomers, I found that most had no inkling of what was in that "Swiss chalet" on Central, as one gal called it. Hence my review of it this week. A whole new generation deserves to find it.
There are too few repositories of such retro hipness in the Valley, so I urge you to go. And I promise you this: Long after the bistros of Kierland Commons and the seen-one-seen-'em-all Snottsdale chow palaces have merged into one endless blur in your cranial cavity, Autumn Court will remain with you as a unique, magical island of old-school cool.