Page A4 / The Joan
De Arc Crusader / Sunday, June 23, 2019
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Nostalgic restaurant review: Korean BBQ at Copper
By J. Bueker
It was the kind of night of which Joan De Arc magic was woven: March
17, 1969. There was a unique assemblage of events that evening that combined
to fashion an indelible Avenue memory for your faithful scribe.
I was a 5th grader at Sahuaro that spring, one of my happiest of
years at the school. Our Grandma Bueker was in town that week for her
customary springtime visit, blissfully assuring a rare family excursion to
my favorite of all Phoenix restaurants – the charming riverboat eatery
Copper Belle on West Camelback. Grandma Jane had developed a notable
fondness for the Belle over the years, doubtlessly owing in part to its
exceptional River Boat Bar, and she always insisted on dining there whenever
in town. Grandma never could get the name quite straight, though – Copper
Kettle? The Copper Boat?
I loved the place because it was a cool and thoroughly unique Phoenix
thematic restaurant. The building was cleverly and meticulously designed
inside and out to resemble an old Arizona river boat, complete with a
sizable paddle wheel turning through a small pool of water on the
structure’s periphery and a pair of functioning smoke stacks billowing from
the roof. I also thought very highly of the cuisine, specifically the
southern fried chicken and rice skillet. Dining out at Copper Belle was an
infrequent delight that I deeply relished.
being St. Patrick’s Day, the Belle was packed that evening. Our entire
family was present, even my sister Sue, who by this period was actively
avoiding such family outings like the bubonic plague. I was intrigued to
observe my father and other patrons quaffing green beer to mark the
occasion, a Paddy’s tradition I had never before witnessed, and the whole
festive holiday atmosphere was further enhanced by the jaunty music of a
live ragtime band. To top off the evening, my father had a wonderful
surprise in store.
After dinner, Carl revealed
that he had acquired a pair of tickets to that evening’s Phoenix Suns game
at the Coliseum. This was the team’s inaugural season, and little did I
dream I would have an opportunity to actually attend a game in person. As an
added bonus, the Suns’ opponent that night just happened to be our hometown
Detroit Pistons. Thus as a grand consummation to this already quite
memorable evening, I was now on my way to my very first Phoenix Suns
basketball game. Can it possibly, I must ask, get any better than this?
The Suns were awful that first year of course, and the Coliseum was sparsely
attended on this Monday night, with perhaps a couple thousand souls in the
seats. My primary memory of the contest is of the hilarious catcalls raining
down from bored Suns fans throughout the course of the evening, generally
directed at the referees and Detroit players. Much to my delight, Carl
himself let loose with a series of good-natured zingers as we watched the
Suns drop a snoozer, 119-95. I was to attend far more exciting and
meaningful Phoenix Suns games at the Coliseum in the years to come, but I
don’t think I ever had more fun at a Suns game than I did with my dad that
So what else could I do this year on the
50th anniversary of such a wondrous evening from my youth but
mark the occasion with a nostalgic return to the old Copper Belle building,
which astonishingly enough not only still stands, but still houses a quite
viable eating establishment, albeit one altogether different from our old
friend Copper Belle.
Uncounted businesses have
occupied that building at 1534 W. Camelback since the Belle closed down in
1978, and the marvelous riverboat design and décor of course departed long
ago. Han Korean BBQ, opened last year, is the latest occupant of this
aging edifice of my youth, and so my companion and I opted (after some
pleading on my part) to forgo the traditional corned beef and cabbage for a
markedly unorthodox St. Patrick’s Day dinner of Korean barbeque.
As we entered the establishment, we noted a clean, sprightly dining space
with sleek, contemporary décor and cheerful yellow leatherette seating. A
high-tech 21st century vibe defined the space with the presence
of state-of-the-art grills at each booth and corresponding metal vents above
each table. The room was exceptionally well-lighted, quite unlike the darker
and more intimate Copper Belle, while the choice of music was not quite my
cup of tea, being geared more for a millennial taste, to the extent I
understand such things. Overall though, we perceived an inviting postmodern dining
environment that had absolutely zero in common with the old Copper Belle’s
flickering antique lanterns and nostalgic southern nautical motifs.
My companion and I proceeded to order our series of meat dishes featuring
different varieties of raw beef, pork and chicken, which we grilled over our
personal gas grill built into the table. This being my first experience with
Korean barbeque, I was a little surprised to discover that I was expected to
cook my own food, which I did with varying degrees of success. It was
certainly tasty however, with particular favorites being the fresh beef
brisket and spicy pork, both of which went well with the house BBQ and
gochujang sauces. The price was also agreeable, $14.95 per person for
all-you-can-eat, although the standard rice accompaniment surprisingly was
ala carte and cost a few bucks extra.
The service at Han was certainly first rate. Our server Andrew was friendly,
helpful, attentive and efficient, and he seemed genuinely interested as I
babbled on and on about the historical significance of our visit to the
restaurant that day. He even good-naturedly agreed to pose for a few photos
with me holding a postcard of my long-lost fave Phoenix restaurant. Andrew
got a nice tip.
As we were leaving, we were
intercepted by Susan, the assistant manager at Han Korean BBQ, whom Andrew
had alerted regarding the historical artifacts I carried with me that day.
She actually appeared quite fascinated by the old Copper Belle menu I
brought along and listened attentively as I briefly recounted the history of
the noteworthy building in which she is now employed. Susan cheerfully thanked us
and made a point of bookmarking the address of my little website tribute to
the old restaurant. I’m guessing Copper Belle closed its doors a solid
decade before she was born.
Very little remains
from 1969 along that stretch of Camelback Rd. The light rail now rumbles
down the street at regular intervals, winding easterly onward toward its
turn onto Central Avenue and destinations downtown. Most of the nearby
structures from half a century past have long since vanished or receded into
disrepair, with a long-standing office building just west of Copper Belle
being razed but a few months ago.
miraculously, the old Copper Belle building has so far escaped destruction,
which delights me to no end.
And while the old Copper Belle restaurant
disappeared long ago, there are some things that do come full circle
in Phoenix and manage to return to their original state of being. After all,
the Suns are just about as awful now as they were back in’69.
reason, this sad state of affairs makes me smile.
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