September 26, 2022

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Cooking is a hobby

How Seven Stars Pepper Transformed Seattle’s Chinese Food Scene

After two decades of enticing Seattle diners to eat more spicy pickled cabbage, soul-warming hot pot, and ropy hand-shaved noodles, Seven Stars Pepper Szechuan Restaurant closed the doors for the last time in February. To those experienced with the bright buzz of Sichuan peppercorns, it broke ground in 2001 as one of the city’s first and best places to rekindle their love for it. For those less familiar with non-Cantonese Chinese food or Chinese food in general, the bright lights, friendly service, and mild options wooed them quickly, giving the rest of the long menu a chance to grow on them. And, alongside creating a city of Sichuan cuisine lovers, Seven Stars laid the groundwork for a Sichuan food scene in Seattle which now punches far above its weight.

Seattle boasts locations of major international Sichuan hot pot chains, like Hai Di Lao, and was an early outpost of Southern California’s Chengdu Taste, widely considered one of the country’s best Sichuan restaurants, both of which opened in 2020. But many local Sichuan restaurants show a more direct link to the groundbreaking spot: As the original chef Cheng Biao Yang and co-owner Hoang Ngo opened and then sold restaurants, they left a trail of kitchens, many sold to employees or family, serving the dishes fans already loved.

Yang had cooked in Sichuan for 20 years before opening his first Seattle restaurant. And in 2002, within six months of opening the short-lived original location in North Seattle, Seattle Times restaurant critic Providence Cicero called it a “hot new Greenwood option” and her colleague, food writer Nancy Leson, declared it her “favorite new Chinese-food find.” Less than two years later, it moved to 12th and Jackson, establishing one of the powerhouse culinary corners of Seattle restaurants.

Cookbook author Hsiao-Ching Chou, in her former role as food editor of the Seattle P-I, hailed Seven Stars Pepper in an article that mostly instructed people to go to Vancouver for Chinese food, saying it and Jade Garden “give me hope Seattle’s level of Chinese cooking will reach a new standard.”

In an interview with Eater Seattle, Chou says Seven Stars Pepper was one of her three “auxiliary offices” at the time. “I’d bring visiting food folks there for hand-shaved noodles, green beans, and pork with spiced tofu,” she says. “People always left with a full stomach and wistfulness that they didn’t live closer.” (Though Leson points out that one of the things she – and many folks – liked about the restaurant’s location in the Ding How Shopping Center was that it had parking for those who didn’t live closer.)

Part of a two-story shopping mall, with parking and a couple of restaurants on the first floor, and a sign reading “Seven Stars Pepper” under an empty restaurant space on the second.

Seven Stars Pepper’s now-shuttered space in the Ding How Center in Little Saigon.
Jade Yamazaki Stewart/Eater Seattle

The hand-shaved noodles were a big selling point for Seattle radio personality and host of the podcast Your Last Meal, Rachel Belle, as well. “That was the dish that kept me coming back year after year,” she says of the irregularly shaped thick, chewy noodles. “There was no better noodle dish in the city.”

A few years after that first piece mentioning Seven Stars Pepper, Chou wrote a second, noting a difference that Seven Stars was making in the food scene – big groups of white people eating dishes beyond what she calls the “stereotypical old faithfuls.” She says the experience was heartening. “If people aren’t more savvy about traditional Chinese cooking, especially in restaurants, then they are at least more open to it. I think it’s the former.”

Perhaps, the answer was both: Seven Stars was one of Seattle’s first Sichuan restaurants and continued to hold the heart of many diners seeking Sichuan food but it also left a legacy of the cuisine — helping it to expand across the city. Leson recalls Yang’s “eye-opening cuisine,” but also Ngo’s warmth and the symbiotic way the two ran a restaurant, and that shows even long after they left a place. When Yang and Ngo sold the Greenwood location, an employee bought it and opened Szechuan Bistro, which served an almost identical menu until it was burned down by the Greenwood arsonist in 2009. But by then, Yang and Ngo had long since moved on, selling Seven Stars and heading up Bellevue’s Szechuan Chef in 2006, then repeating the process with Spicy Talk in Redmond in 2010. Ngo remained at Spicy Talk, with Yang’s brother as chef, moving the restaurant to Kirkland in 2018. Both Szechuan Chef and Spicy Talk remain open today.

Seven Stars Pepper does not. Last November, the first trickle of bad news came with a piece in the Seattle Times, with owners Michael Creel and Yong Hong Wang saying that between a recent shooting and ongoing break-ins, they couldn’t stay open. In mid-February, the city did a sweep to clean up what the Times called “an open-air drug market,” but it was too late to help Seven Stars Pepper, which had already shuttered. “First the complaints were that it was being gentrified,” notes Leson of the neighborhood. “Now it’s the complete opposite.”

The storied location, overlooking one of the biggest intersections in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, now sits empty. Following his split with Ngo, Yang opened Country Dough in the Pike Place Market in 2015, which closed temporarily, then permanently, in the pandemic. It was replaced in 2021 by Seattle Dumpling Co., from the owners of Lake City’s Mount & Bao. So while a giant of the scene is gone, you can still get Sichuan dandan noodles inside the city’s most iconic culinary attraction, an appropriate gesture of Seattle’s love for the dish, and a sign of the mark Seven Stars Pepper left on Seattle.