July 17, 2017 | BITE: My Journal
Hell or High Watermelon: Pinch Chinese
From our table we can watch a cauldron of Pinch Chinese chefs making dumplings.
I finally got to Pinch Chinese in SoHo after a rat-a-tat chorus of alerts from trusted foodniks. We are just four tonight, uncharacteristically spartan in our ordering…but here’s my take: Modest. Clean. Whimsical. Delicious. I agree that modest, clean, and whimsical are not the headlines that usually send us racing to reserve.
Pinch is narrow and on one side Chinese characters and torn posters adorn the bright red walls.
The room is sparsely populated early but fills up with millennial couples and foursomes later.
But how refreshing, anyway. The little giggles on the menu, quotes from Yelp, the aristocratic pedigrees: Niman Ranch pork, Lancaster chicken. And coupled with “delicious”…I’ll be going back.
I try to choose a cocktail without too many conflicting ingredients. The Chino Latino, minus chili oil, is fine.
It’s a challenge to choose a cocktail when there are too many unfriendly ingredients. I reject Call Me Maybe because it mixes rhubarb vodka with watermelon, rosemary, Ancho Reyes and orange bitters. Here I’m grateful that it doesn’t take an unseemly stretch for my $14 Chino Latino to arrive. Just pineapple, and lemon. I had asked them to hold the chili oil. The miniature paper parasol is always a plus and the large slice of candied ginger, a welcome surprise.
Upfront behind the glass wall masked cooks stuff dumplings while cook do stir fries in the kitchen behind.
Seven of the 10 items listed in “First” are dumplings. A trio of cooks wearing plastic masks is visible from our table behind glass shaping them. There is no attempt to compete in depth and sophistication or even cuteness with Red Farm. I wish we’d tried the fish dumplings in pork broth with house spicy sauce.
Shanghai soup buns can be big and blowsy, easily torn, unlike the sturdy little dumplings at Pinch.
The Shanghai pork soup dumplings arrive in the traditional steamer. They are small and firm as a pubescent girl, trim enough to pop into your mouth whole without spilling a drop of “porky goodness,” as the menu puts it. The goodness may not be as as wanton and complex as my experience of Red Farm’s soupy buns, but it’s good enough.
The server brings MSG and black vinegar in matching bottles -- one capped in red, the other in green -- and drops strands of fresh ginger into each little saucer so we can blend our own dip.
The spicy pork wontons in what the menu calls “house crack sauce” are savory and elegant.
Spicy pork wontons in “house crack sauce” sprawl a little, but don’t need any further accessorizing than the kicky soup they’re bathed in.
Some cumin dishes around town can knock you off your chair but not these restrained cumin ribs at Pinch.
I could have done justice to a second cumin pork rib – there are only four in an $18 serving, and they are smallish. But rather than commanding an encore, I’m saving myself for the $45 free range, Wind Sand Lancaster organic chicken. It arrives with dark crusty skin, legs akimbo pornographically, sprinkled with garlic crisps – moist and full of flavor.
The Lanscater chicken is crisp and pedigreed and, as we see at once, it’s not bow-legged.
There’s a cheaper bird on the menu but this crusty chicken satisfieds four of us with leftovers to take home.
Pinch does an especially elegant Ma Po Tofu that comes with rice (so you needn’t lose any of the liquid.) In years of devotion to the málà pepper of Sichuan, I’ve scorched my mouth on many a Ma Po Tofu. This is definitely delicious but no serious threat.
A bowl of rice accompanies the spicy tofu so no need to lose any sauce.
I’m sorry I didn’t order the Buddha’s Delight with lotus root and wood ear, or the seasonal greens or the Taiwanese Cabbage and Bacon listed under “Friends.” Sichuan green beans are generously layered with minced pork but not remarkably fiery. Eggplant in Garlic Sauce is described as coming with “long pepper + garlic (duh!)” but I’m too happy to hold that duh! against anyone.
The tranquility at 7:15 pm when we arrived is gobbled up as tables turn and romantic millennial twosomes press in. The escalation of exclamations makes us lean but isn't painful.
The fat green beans are cooked al dente and tossed with minced pork.
With snow crab on glass noodles, American wagyu bavette, and pork belly named for the poet Dong Po, Pinch may seem all over the map. Sean Tang’s parents grew up in Taiwan. “So what we ate was a mishmash,” he has said. Tang and his partner-cousin Tony Li decided Pinch should be that way too, and brought in Charlie Chen, from the Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung, to run their SoHo kitchen.
The host at the door wears his musical heart on his chest.
“Should we order dessert?” I ask my pals. We agree to consider what Pinch offers.
“We don’t have dessert,” our server says, solving that existential issue.
The poster faces on the wall seem to cry out for more than dumplings. I think of Tiananmen Square.
“Xie Xie You Guys” it says on the receipt. Thank you. I have to add my $62 round trip cab fare from the Upper West side to the modest $54 quarter share of the dinner tab to reflect the tariff. But I consider it all a business expense. I’ll be back.
177 Prince Street between Sullivan and Thompson Streets. 212 328 7880. Lunch weekdays noon to 3 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Dinner Sunday to Wednesday 5 pm to 10 pm, Thursday to Saturday 5 pm to 11 pm.
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