On the heels of eating at Chef Cheng Biao Yang’s Uway Balatang did a friend and I have lunch at Yang’s previously-owned restaurant just down the street, Seven Stars Pepper, in the Ding How Shopping Center in Little Saigon. Truth be told, this was not our first choice today but rather Lemongrass in the same shopping center for its magnificent (Vietnamese) beef stew. As we walked through the door, someone intercepted us and informed us that they were not open (for reasons unexplained), even though the neon “open” sign was lit and the front door unlocked. That’s how we wound up upstairs at Seven Stars Pepper instead.
Widely regarded as cooking authentic Szechuanese dishes, Chef Yang made quite a name for himself at Seven Stars Pepper where then rarely known dishes like chong gin hot chicken, cumin lamb, dan dan noodles and Szechwan crab became popular and beloved among non-Chinese Seattle diners, one big impetus being provided by the rave reviews of Nancy Leson, Seattle Times food critic at the time (and now its food writer). (I make the ethnic qualification because the Chinese community has its own network of the latest Chinese food and restaurant developments well before the English-language press reports on them.) Yang eventually sold the restaurant, reportedly unhappy about the dismal parking situation at Ding How (poorly lit, cramped underground parking where all weight-bearing posts show signs of vehicle scrape marks), and opened Szechuan Chef on the Eastside where more generous suburban parking was presumably more to his liking. He has since sold Szechuan Chef and gotten involved in two more restaurants, including his latest, the aforementioned Uway Balatang.
Despite Yang’s departure, Seven Stars Pepper is still short-listed by food critic Jay Friedman (Serious Eats) as serving some of the best Szechwan food in the city.
Friend and I shared two dishes: chong gin hot chicken (from the regular menu) and pickled vegetable fish (from the lunch menu).
The fish dish derives its distinctive flavor from the pickled vegetables (mustard greens) and pickled red chiles, and Szechuan peppercorns. Seven Stars Pepper uses a subdued amount of peppercorns which greatly diminished the dish’s typically fragrant and numbing impact. With tilapia, the kitchen also added thin diagonal slices of celery, carrots, tree ears and baby bamboo shoots to add crunch. Overall, while it doesn’t have the traditional tingling peppercorn quality, this was a tasty and savory if mildly spicy entrée (☆☆☆).
The same restrained hand with peppercorns made the chong gin chicken, shall I say, inauthentic but not necessarily without merit. While the crispy nuggets of battered chicken thigh, dry-fried greens beans, scallions and a liberal amount of dried red chile peppers were fine enough to earn good marks (☆☆☆), the hallmark má là quality was missing. For a more potent sinus-clearing and mouth-numbing experience, I’d have to go to one of Yang’s current restaurants (Uway Balatang and Spicy Talk Bistro) or Spiced.
I have to wonder if the decision to use less peppercorns has to do with appealing to a wider palette. This seems like an odd decision for a restaurant primarily catering to a Vietnamese and Chinese clientele.
Seven Stars Pepper
1207 S Jackson St
Seattle, WA 98144
We went to that Lemongrass about two months ago. We did not recognize the people there, and the Beef Stew was not the same. While it was good, it lacked the complexity that made it outstanding. We suspect that the place was sold and the old clientele largely lost.
I guess it was just as well that we didn’t get in.