AS SO MANY college students do, Yukiko Sodos craved a taste of home while attending the University of Washington in the early 1990s. Home was Albuquerque, where she and her sister, Miki Sodos, grew up, so naturally, she went looking for chile peppers. In New Mexico, she says, “Green chile cheeseburgers are like espresso is here.” But the green peppers she bought at QFC were nothing like the chiles she was used to. “I didn’t know there were other kinds of chile peppers.”
These days, the Sodos sisters import pallet-loads of New Mexico chile peppers destined for the burritos, burgers, huevos and rellenos on the menu at Bang Bang Café in Belltown and Bang Bang Kitchen in Othello, two of their three Seattle restaurants. (The third, Capitol Hill’s Café Pettirosso, has a distinctly Italian bent.)
Becoming restaurateurs was neither sister’s original plan. Yukiko, the eldest, had worked at Café Pettirosso as a barista and baker, as well as at the Japanese restaurant Hana, but as a student of Japanese literature, she hoped to teach English in Japan. Miki, three years younger, had worked in food service since she was 16, but after earning a political science degree, she was contemplating law school. In 2002, both were in their late 20s when they learned their mother was dying of cancer. They hit the pause button on their Seattle lives and headed home.
Their mother, AnJa, was born in Tokyo. She was a go-go dancer in San Francisco when she met Ron Sodos on vacation in Hawaii. A New Yorker of Russian/Polish heritage (the family name Chodes was changed to Sodos at Ellis Island), Ron was “a hippie who played steel guitar,” according to his daughters. AnJa’s wish was to spend her final days in Hawaii. Her daughters were with her. They still have a pair of her white go-go boots.
It was a devastating year for their family. Just before his wife’s death, Ron Sodos also lost his mother and a sister. Then he suffered a heart attack. The sisters stayed in Albuquerque to care for him. Nearly four years went by.
Yukiko worked in health care. Miki went to automotive school. A summer sojourn in Southern California shook them out of their funk.
“We decided after all the sad stuff in our lives, we wanted to do something crazy and no obligations,” Yukiko says. Together with a Seattle friend who also was recovering from trauma, the women rented a house at Mission Beach in San Diego and drove to L.A. most weekends. “By the end of the summer, my sister and I realized Seattle was our home and moved back up.”
Those years “changed us both internally,” says Miki. “Your perspective changes.” They moved back to Seattle with no real plan, but an opportunity came along to open Bang Bang Café. “We knew it was a huge risk, but we thought, ‘Why not? Life is so short.’ ”
Of those early years running the cafe, Yukiko recalls: “It was so fun and amazing, and I was able to bake every day. Miki would cook, and we found inspiration daily as we built a wonderful community in Belltown.” Two years later, Robin Wright, the founder of Café Pettirosso, suggested the sisters take over that restaurant. They felt they had to do it, “Even though we had our hands full with Bang Bang Café,” Yukiko says.
They expanded and remodeled Pettirosso, learning a lot in the process. On New Year’s Day 2019, they opened Bang Bang Kitchen near the Othello light rail station. As a full-service restaurant and bar, it’s a bigger, more ambitious version of the cafe. They’ve personalized it with magical murals, the work of artist Walter Portz, a family friend, who incorporated images inspired by the sisters’ childhood memories. They were drawn to the South Seattle location because of the area’s cultural diversity. “Albuquerque is super-diverse too,” Miki says. “No matter what color you are there, everyone’s a New Mexican.”
Like those vibrant red and green New Mexico chiles Bang Bang Kitchen uses with wonderful abandon, the neighborhood reminds them of home.
Bang Bang Kitchen’s Cornmeal Pancakes with Green Chile Compound Butter
At the restaurant, you’ll find these pancakes on the brunch menu, served with crispy, chile-and-honey glazed chicken wings. Chef Chris Leeking says both the batter and the butter are best prepared ahead, letting the flavors develop.
For the pancakes:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup medium grind yellow cornmeal
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk shaken with 1 tablespoon distilled vinegar
1/4 cup honey
2 large eggs
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
2. Make a well in the center, and add the milk, honey and eggs.
3. Mix well to combine, then add in the slightly cooled melted butter. Mix again until just combined; don’t overmix.
Makes 12-14 pancakes. Prepare batter at least one or two hours ahead, and up to one day.
For the compound butter:
8 tablespoons butter, softened
2-3 tablespoons canned Hatch hot green chiles, chopped (they prefer Los Roast brand)
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon honey
1. Mash the butter on a cutting board with a fork, or in a bowl with a mixer.
2. Blend in the other ingredients until the butter is creamy and smooth.
3. Form into a rough log about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Roll tightly in plastic wrap to shape and smooth. Refrigerate until ready to use.
The flavor will improve over several days. Cut butter into coins, and place one or two atop hot pancakes.