Page A4 / The Joan De Arc Crusader / Sunday, June 23, 2019
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Nostalgic restaurant review: Korean BBQ at Copper Belle

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.
     This 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 night.
     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.
     Somehow, 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.
For some reason, this sad state of affairs makes me smile.


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