SEVEN STARS PEPPER Smoky, spicy, salty, and sometimes paralyzingly hot deliciousness. Annie Marie Musselman
Seven Stars Pepper Szechuan Restaurant
1207 S Jackson St, Suite 211, 568-6446
Open daily 10:30 am-10 pm.

It's been a long time since I was surprised and delighted by Chinese food. You fall into habits, of course--dim sum at Honey Court, hand-shaved barleygreen noodles at Shanghai Garden--and it can be comforting, and your little personal rituals provide continuity in chaotic times and that sort of thing, but then you might never discover Seven Stars Pepper.

This is a serious state of affairs. Not only because the food is amazing, but because the amazing food somehow makes this city seem like a bigger, better, more interesting place (the restaurant's location on the second floor of the Ding How shopping center also feels somewhat Vancouverish). Every time I leave Seven Stars Pepper I'm in a blissed-out state and already planning my next meal. The age-old problem of ordering something you've loved inordinately, or trying something new that you very probably will also love inordinately, acquires an intense edge here.

For example, there's crab with ginger and green onion (priced seasonally). It arrives at your table in a big heap of crab legs coated in slithery sauce which, since you have to crack each leg to get the meat out, is soon everywhere. Cracking a crab leg often results in bits of shell flying across the table into your dining partner's face. Soon, you learn that sucking on the legs not only draws out the absolutely delicious, succulent meat, but also delivers a nice hit of the pungent, oniony, gingery sauce. By the time I polished off the crab with ginger and green onion--very nearly by myself--I had crab in my hair, crab in my lap, crab down my shirt. My husband was mortified, but the waitress seemed very pleased.

Then there is the Szechuan Crispy Duck ($9.95), which is cut into chunks of nice fatty meat and crisp skin (my idea of heaven) and tastes unaccountably of smoky tea. (I've read about a Szechuan dish in which duck is smoked with camphor and tea--perhaps this is a variation?) There is the green onion pancake ($2.99), which is light and crispy, although a little short on green onion. There are Szechuan hot sauce wontons ($5.95), which are delicate-textured, pork-filled, and swimming in a spicy, oily sauce that will perk you right up. Ant on a Tree ($7.25) is an amazing combination of that same spicy oil poured over ground pork and the most ethereal of noodles. The spicy sauce boosts, but doesn't obscure, the gentler flavor of the pork.

In many of the dishes I've tasted at Seven Stars Pepper, the flavors are distinct and specific, not the anything-goes of stir-fry or oceans of sweetish sauce that cry out for rice. In fact, although you can order rice, I've never wanted it. In Smoking Pork with Garlic Leaf ($8.50), the pork is salty and smoky, and dressed simply, with attention to nuance (having leeks and scallions in the same dish might feel like redundancy, but in actuality it adds unexpected depth, a sort of major-to-minor scale of onion-ness). Black bean prawns and octopus ($9.95) come with perfectly cooked octopus (with no trace of the unpleasant rubberiness that put me off octopus years ago) and a judicious sprinkling of fermented black beans, which have their own kind of intense saltiness. The flavors that I had all sort of jumbled together in my mind under "Chinese" are here separated and focused: pungent, smoky, spicy, as well as deliberately (rather than by rote) salty. (I haven't yet tried the sour shredded potato, but I will.)

If you like hot foot, there is food that is paralyzingly hot with famous Szechuan hotness. I, however, was not brave enough to order the boiled sliced beef in very hot sauce ($8.95). I did try something entirely unexpected, cumin lamb ($9.95), which is absolutely fragrant with flavors you'd never think to find in a Chinese restaurant--closer to Indian food than not. According to a friend who knows these things, you have the Szechuan Muslim population to thank, as well as flavors traveling over the Silk Road, at the eastern end of which the Szechuan province sits. God, I have so much to learn.

At least I know where to eat.