Chinese food that makes you wake up and take notice
Seattle Times restaurant critic
Based on looks alone, it would be easy to dismiss Seven Stars Pepper as just another Chinese joint in a city full of them. Don't make that mistake. Come in and sit tight. The food tells another story, and it's one you won't want to miss.
This mom-and-pop shop in the heart of Little Saigon offers an exciting adventure in regional Chinese cookery. Here on the second story of the Ding How Shopping Center, taste-bud travelers can explore the intensity of flavors the province of Szechuan is world-famous for. That journey comes courtesy of chef Cheng Biao Yang, who recently relocated Seven Stars Pepper from a short-lived Greenwood locale too small to house his talent — and his wife's enthusiasm.
Kind service is led by the lady of the house, Hoang Ngo, whose broad smile and helpful suggestions make it easy to forgive uncomfortable lag times when she and her crew are busy tending other guests. Language barriers can also pose a problem.
Here in her spacious dining room painted an off shade of blue, hand-lettered signs tout the house specialties. These include Szechuan crab (priced seasonally), a mix-and-match menu (unavailable on Friday and Saturday after 3 p.m.) and a list of palate-restoring fresh fruit drinks ($2.50). Care to know what was coursing through Carmen Miranda's veins? Order the watermelon juice and you'll find out.
Pay a visit to this humble house of spice and nice, and you're sure to leave reeking of garlic, tongue tingling, palate piqued, vowing to return soon to sample more of the 100-plus items that make up this intriguing and inexpensive menu. These distinctively seasoned dishes delight with variations in tastes and textures that are bound to jolt you — as they did me — out of a Cantonese food-induced stupor.
Meals begin with a complimentary treat: soybeans and a finely diced slaw dancing with chili oil. Among a trio of pancake appetizers, it's a tough call between the simple, flaky, house-special pancake ($2.99) reminiscent of the roti served across the street at Malay Satay Hut, and the green leek pancake ($3.99), a crusty hotcake slit, stuffed and sliced, its pocket plumped with crunchy leek tops and flecks of egg and dried bean curd.
Chubby pork-filled dumplings ($5.95), fried or steamed, are wrapped in housemade dough and dazzle after a dive into the accompanying soy-based dipping sauce.
Chef Yang's fluency with fabulousity is evident in a shareable bowl of pickled cabbage with pork soup. Its delicate broth offers a surprising heat-driven kick, the cabbage adding its sour note to slippery cellophane noodles punctuated with pork ($6.25). This is a far better call than West Lake beef ($6.25), which, like the ill-balanced hot-and-sour soup ($4.95), suffers from over-thickening.
Certain to hold a hallowed place among my taste memories is chong gin hot chicken ($9.95), a fragrant fiesta of high-voltage chilies, crisp morsels of chicken and dry-cooked green beans. And since I first tasted it in Greenwood, I've been addicted to the intensely flavored cumin lamb ($9.95). Garlicky, gamey and tossed with scallion greens, this love-it-or-hate-it specialty features thin-sliced meat smacking of massive amounts of cumin.
Chow mein gets the royal treatment when ordered as "special" hand-shaven noodles — a moniker that's right on the money ($6.95). Chewy and ragged-edged, its heat quotient ordered-to-suit, the noodles are gussied up with beef, chicken, shrimp and bamboo shoots (among other vegetables), accented with cilantro and dried Szechuan peppers (when ordered "hot") and should grace every table. The same could be said for the beautifully caramelized eggplant in soy sauce ($7.25).
"Deep Fried Fish and String Bean Szechuan Style" ($11.95) is a magnificent display of gentle frying and garlicky goodness involving chunks of crispy sea bass coated in a vaguely sweet jacket. Another seafood marvel, steamed fish in hot black bean sauce ($13.95), was the cat(fish)'s meow when served as thick fillets, garnished with a profusion of cilantro in a lush, sugar-sweetened, vinegar-laced Chinese black bean sauce. Note to those who loathe cilantro (aka "Chinese parsley"): Speak up or pay the price. This pungent herb is in frequent usage here.
Octopus apparently translates as squid at Seven Stars Pepper. But it translates very well, whether you've ordered prawns and "octopus" with pickled pepper sauce (a saucy stunner laden with fresh chili peppers, black mushrooms and slivered bamboo shoots, $9.95) or hot pepper "octopus" ($9.95), which, like the aforementioned, features some of the most tenderly rendered squid you'll ever sink your teeth into.
Seven Stars Pepper is fast becoming a mecca for fans of Szechuan hot-pot: a sinus-clearing, brow-mopping, cook-it-yourself table-top extravaganza of meats, seafood, tofu, vegetables and cellophane noodles, simmered in various broths. Think fondue party and you'll get the gist of this family-friendly dining event where uncooked ingredients arrive on large platters and dip-netting is part of the fun (fishing for tofu and tripe? Why not?). The price is per person with a two-person minimum. Hold the seafood and it's $9.95, opt for "all lamb" and it's $12. "Family hot-pot" ($11.99) includes meat and seafood. Kids under 5 eat free.
I don't know about you, but it's been too long since I've been this excited about Chinese food. Need some excitement in your life? Well, now you know where to find it.
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company