Third Street may be the Rodney Dangerfield of Central Phoenix. For many drivers, it’s just a less congested alternative to Central Avenue or Seventh Street. Although it passes by elegant historic districts such as Alvarado and Ashland Place, the street itself gets almost “no respect” because relatively few businesses or institutions lie along its length. One exception is China Chili, which despite an official mailing address on Flower Street, faces Third Street. The restaurant’s Midtown location is about a third of a mile east of the Osborn / Central light rail station.
China Chili has been around for a long time, although not always at this location. The original restaurant on Central Avenue was demolished to make way for light rail construction. The new space is much larger and has two entrances, one facing Third Street and the other facing a rear parking lot. They both lead to a cavernous dining room full of circular tables with lazy Susans to enable family style eating and smaller four-tops around the room’s perimeter. Unfortunately, there’s no bike rack, but a railing at the back entrance can work as an alternative.
There are chandeliers overhead and some Chinese artwork on the walls, but the feel is more bustling than formal. The restaurant’s noise level comes not from music, but from the steady din of conversation and platters of food being passed back and forth as dining companions share dishes. During lunch, individual-sized entrees with an egg roll and soup are offered, but at other times China Chili is best enjoyed in a group setting. The more people around the table, the more dishes can be sampled via family-style dining at a cost usually around $10 per person.
Like most local Chinese restaurants, China Chili’s food is primarily Cantonese with added dishes from other regions of China, as well as a few dishes with origins elsewhere in Asia. The menu lists over 100 items, not to mention a few specials on a separate sheet and an even more extensive list of seasonal Chinese New Year dishes like sizzling sea bass or flounder with yellow chives. Unlike places with prix-fixe Chinese New Year menus, no reservations are needed; customers can mix and match items from both the standard and the holiday menus.
The appetizers aren’t exotic; vegetable egg rolls and pot stickers are popular choices, both well executed and worth spinning around the table with their accompanying sauce of chilies, oil, and vinegar. The tofu pillows can easily divvied up like an appetizer even though they’re listed among the entrees. Regardless, they’re unexpectedly bland. The shrimp paste doesn’t really shine through the bland bulk of the the crushed tofu. The boiled wontons in a spicy peanut sauce and the chicken salad with hot mustard and sesame oil are more assertive and rewarding choices.
The soups, which serve about four, are equally viable ways to start a meal. The hot and sour soup is a keen version of the Chinese restaurant classic with pork, shrimp, tofu, and mushrooms in a thick broth flavored with white pepper and rice vinegar. Tofu and mushroom soup is a lighter alternative with bean curd, shiitake mushrooms, and Chinese greens. It’s meatless, although not vegetarian due to its chicken broth base. Sizzling rice soup mixes crisp grains of fried rice floating in a thick broth with chicken, shrimp, snow peas, and water chestnuts.
Despite the restaurant’s name, China Chili’s food isn’t typically all that hot. The dishes labeled as spicy are moderately so, but be prepared to use the chili oil located among the condiments at each table if a more incendiary taste is the goal. Despite the lack of overt, overpowering heat, the kitchen generally delivers a high level of flavor. One of the few dishes borrowed from another part of Asia, the Thai noodles, is essentially the same entree as the pad Thai available at every Thai restaurant, but with a bolder taste than at most places that specialize in that cuisine.
The menu leads with seafood, and that’s usually a good bet. The sizzling black pepper prawns and scallops are presented with a bit of flair in the form of an audible sizzle. A lively sauce coats but does not overwhelm the plump crustaceans and mollusks on the hot metal plate. Kung pao shrimp is to be expected on any American Chinese menu, but kung pao calamari is a bit different with the chewier texture of squid juxtaposed with the crunch of peanuts. Flounder and sea bass, rather than the more common tilapia, are the types of fish found most often on the menu.
Among poultry dishes, the roast duck with its tender meat and crispy skin is a straightforward preparation that pairs well with vegetable dishes, including off-menu items such as snow peas leaves. Ask for Chinese greens, and most times they’ll be available. Orange chicken is often thought of as heavy, gloppy food. China Chili’s is lighter and more nuanced than most other versions of this standby. The Yu Shiang chicken is more complex with strong flavors of ginger, garlic, and chiles combined with varied textures from bamboo shoots and tree mushrooms.
China Chili does not have a full bar but offers a selection of wine and bottled beer. Order a Lucky Buddha — not so much for the flavor, which is underwhelming, but instead for the artistic bottle. Service is no-nonsense, efficient, and quick. While diners are welcome to linger, it’s also possible to have a two-course dinner within the span of one hour. One day Third Street may have bike lanes, more businesses, and its own distinctive destinations. Until then, China Chili offers at least one reason to make a stop along Midtown’s underappreciated back corridor.
302 E. Flower St., Phoenix AZ 85012
Osborn / Central Station