Consider the delightful numbing effects of the málà pepper flavoring dishes of mapo tofu and dan dan noodles from China's Sichuan province. And what about the unctuous and succulent Dong Po Pork Belly flavored with wine, a common Hangzhou dish? Or the unique, garlic-strewn Wind Sand Chicken, common in the restaurant markets of Hong Kong. Their commonality? They're all on the menu at Pinch Chinese, a new restaurant in SoHo.
"My family's background is pretty varied. Both my parents grew up in Taiwan, which is a melting pot from all over China," owner Sean Tang explains. "In our family, we have Sichuan roots, as well as roots from other parts of China, so the food we ate was a mishmash. My own life experience was having the greatest hits of China, and that's why when [co-owner and cousin Tony Li] and I started talking about this, we wanted the restaurant to be this way."
The duo brought on Charlie Chen, a veteran of Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung, to run the Prince Street restaurant's kitchen. Chen's background as Din Tai Fung's executive chef makes him more than proficient at many dishes, but his xiao long bao are of particular note, and the team expresses their pride through the purses' prominence on the menu and the window into the dumpling-making kitchen provided in the dining room.
Pinch offers three different types of soup dumplings, from the common pork ($10) or seafood and pork ($12), plus one made with chicken ($10). They're dainty and quite adorable, a far cry from the larger, doughier versions found at Chinatown spots like Joe's Shanghai. They're served with vinegar, soy sauce and ginger, which diners can mix to their specifications (the restaurant recommends half and half of the two liquids).
Though dishes like Niman Ranch Cumin Ribs ($18), Dan Dan Noodles ($15) and other assorted dumplings like the steamed Fish Dumplings ($12) are excellent, the XLB have been by far the most popular item on the menu since the opening a few weeks ago.
"It's not rare for a night for a table, or two or four, to end on soup dumplings for dessert," reveals general manager Miguel de Leon.
De Leon also handles the restaurant's wine and beer program. For the former, he says he's "using wine as a secondary ingredient, treating it like a sauce more than a pairing," with an emphasis on varieties (merlot, in particular) over regions. For the beer, he's chosen mostly lighter beers like wheats, sours and gose. "Acidity matches the flavors of the food we present," he explains.
For cocktails, Joseph Shoup also considers ingredients in the food as part of his creations. He "stole" kitchen ingredients like Sichuan peppercorns and cumin for his drinks like the one inspired by Lapsang Souchong tea, with pimento bitters, Sichuan peppercorns and scotch.
Everyone's particularly excited about the restaurant's design, which includes an up-front "lounge" area for walk-ins looking for a quick drink and a dumpling. When the weather's nice, the whole front can be opened to the elements for people-watching.
"These neighborhood institutions all have that similar approach to creating a destination for SoHo people—or for people who are just visiting SoHo—to be able to take a moment, take a breath, enjoy the city you're living in and see it unfold in front of you," Tang concludes. "That's what we aimed for with our restaurant, because that's what SoHo demands."
177 Prince Street, 212-328-7880; pinchchinese.com