College Buds Bring Southeast Asian Flavors to SA, One Crawfish Boil at a Time

There's no denying that 2016 has been a rough year. Bowie's gone, Prince is gone, election madness — there's a litany of generally awful things to come out of the last 10 months. But in all that dreariness, there has been a glimmer of hope by way of a new-to-SA cuisine.

I'm not saying Pinch Crawfish Kitchen will turn 2016 around, but the varied bites will make you forget the clustercuss we're currently in. 

It's easy to develop a slight obsession with these flavors. I first sampled Pinch, owned by college buds Andrew Ho and Sean Wen, as a pop-up at Dorcol Distilling Co., which hosted the guys for Keep SA Real's Music for Advanced Listeners series. During a special tasting, Ho and Wen whipped up several pounds of their Vietnamese-style crawfish boil and I was hooked. Citrus, brown sugar, and oh-so-much garlic, ginger and lemongrass all combine with butter to create a luxurious and addictive sauce that's poured over hot crawfish (but I wouldn't stop there — dip your sausage and potatoes in it as well).

"A lot of people, at first, whenever they hear about our food, or they're about to try it, they're like 'this is so weird,' 'this is different,'" Ho said. "Then they turn into repeat customers."

Though readily found in the Houston area, the guys have been spreading that savory/sweet goodness since this spring, first as a catering operation and later as a frequent pop-up.

After a summer hiatus, Pinch is back tonight with a banh mi pop-up at Fairview Coffee (7-10pm, 3428 N. St. Mary's St.) and a crab boil at Dignowity Meats on Saturday (noon-5pm, 1701 E. Houston St.).

And as San Anto has a chance to get acquainted with their flavors, it's time to get familiar with the Pinch story. Both Wen, 26, and Ho, 27, are Houston natives, both first-generation Americans born to immigrant parents. Ho learned his way around a boiling pot of aromatics and mudbugs while cooking alongside his father.

"My dad worked a lot, he still does, but every Saturday and Sunday, he'd wake me up to make food with him," Ho said while describing their patio set-up.

He would eventually go on to UT-Austin and the cooking equipment following him to the university where he'd host boils for friends. Wen eventually met Ho during his first year at UT during a pick-up basketball game.

Wen's affinity for food stemmed from his mother.

"My mom was always in the kitchen making Taiwanese food," Wen said. "It was just those few moments when I could be myself around my mom."

After graduating from UT, Ho joined Quan Ut Ut (a lauded barbecue joint) as operations manager in Vietnam. Ho spent time at Goldman Sachs, later joining Venture for America (a fellowship program that pairs grads and startups to foster entrepreneurship) where he requested to be placed back in Texas. That landed him at Geekdom, where he still works currently.

Pinch didn't materialize for the long-time friends until earlier this year after Ho returned from traveling abroad. He left his job in 2013 and toyed around with the idea of opening up a seafood restaurant or seeing the world.

"My parents said I should travel ... I was only supposed to be gone for a year," Ho said. In total, he lived in Vietnam and Thailand, and visited Hong Kong, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore, Myanmar, Malaysia, India and Nepal.

When Ho came back stateside, he and Wen decided to crowd fund for a food trailer (they reached their $20,000 goal in March) through aggressive social media efforts. Most businesses dream of connecting and engaging with their audience in a wonderfully organic manner, often hiring on tech-savvy millennials, but Pinch's presence is almost half their charm. An effortless blend of great food photography by Ho and their combined humor keeps most eaters entertained.

They aren't just using their Instagram to connect with would-be customers either. The Houston transplants also use the photo-based platform to meet other business owners in the area. Wen connected with Ben Annotti of Oak and Salt/Estate Coffee Company via a simple Instagram message.

"He said, 'We're whipping up a spice blend for you now!' and I thought he was being facetious. This is so sad, it all boils down to Instagram," Wen laughed.

The guys eventually connected with Denise Aguirre of The Point Park & Eats, who suggested they first host pop-ups in the downtown area. She put them in touch with Andrew Samia and Shane Reed (who also hail from the same Houston suburb as Ho and Wen) of Dignowity Meats.

"To us, it's cool to see two other young guys just out there hustling trying to blaze their own path," Samia said of hosting the guys for monthly pop-ups.
The quality of the food doesn't hurt either.

"I think their food is just super unique and flavorful. I'm a weird guy... I grew up on the East Coast, my grandfather was a commercial fisherman, but I've never really liked a lot of seafood," Samia shared. "These guys made me fall in love with their mussels and I love the heat they use in the sauces."

Though crawfish is where they started and will likely be a signature item whenever they open their own brick-and-mortar in San Antonio (they're coy about sharing a location just yet), Pinch will likely evolve based on Ho and Wen's travels. Already they're serving mussels and shrimp in a silky coconut curry; Saturday's menu will include a $30 crab platter with blue crabs, local sausage, corn and potatoes, Texas toast, garlic butter and house pickles.

"That's how it all started for us, and we don't want to forget those roots, but the Southeast Asian flavor and vibe is kind of where it was born from," Wen said. "If it does evolve, it will always be within that realm."


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