The Pinched Taco is Denver’s Culinary Pop-Up Creator You’ve Never Heard Of

It is generally agreed — and echoed in Rebecca Spang’s The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture — that the modern Western restaurant first appeared in the 1760s. For those lucky early subscribers, it fundamentally changed the way folks were able to think about an eating experience, and for several successful centuries has sat largely uncontested at the center of what most people have understood recreational dining to be.

But the march of history rolls on. Even before 2020 firmly declared that nothing could remain as it was, modes of dining had started becoming untethered. A chef’s success was no longer measured by four walls, and the notion that cooks could remain malleable allowed a new generation to view cuisine as an avenue for constant reinvention. Michael Stone, a self-described “bootleg chef,” has developed a culinary career as but one part of a creative oeuvre that includes graphic design, DJing and large-scale digital installations. Currently working under the moniker The Pinched Taco, Stone has been focusing on projects, pop-ups and collaborations, with dumplings and tacos acting as the jump-off point for a range of technique-driven dishes that wittingly ignore geographical restrictions. Fluidly bouncing between off-kilter, genre-bending creations and carefully-honed traditional menus, Stone has spent several years accelerating his nomadic restaurant concept, applying a creative streak that spans both food and beverage, under different titles and from across multiple venues.

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Stone moved to Denver in 2011 on little more than a whim and a friend’s promise of a spare room. “Screw it, it can’t be as bad as Canton, Ohio,” he said. His development as a chef has since worked hand in hand with an equally freethinking career in bartending. Beginning with donation-based cocktails at Indyink pop-ups, the course led him to open Finn’s Grotto — an experimental subset he ran on the patio of Finn’s Manor — in 2017. “I’d show up, see the ingredients, write my own menus, make up my own drinks and experiment,” he said of his early experience.

The decision to take dumplings seriously came after a visit to the Lao Wang Noodle House — an institution that is sadly set to last only as long as its aging owners want to uphold their no-nonsense practice of xiao long bao preeminence. “Oh my god these might disappear one day and I should learn how to make them,” said Stone.

Stone’s first noticeable splash began with the inaugural Bao-lentine’s Day — launched in 2018 at Fort Greene — celebrating life’s two biggest pleasures, love and dumplings. The next year saw a collaboration with Grabowski’s Pizzeria bar manager Trey Hamik, transforming Zeppelin Station’s Big Trouble into a dimly lit den of romance and bites. This year, Stone teamed with Misfit Snackbar‘s Bo Porytko for the wildest iteration to date.

The sold-out affair — held at the ever-innovative East Colfax staple Middleman — featured a spread that amplified both chefs otherworldly melange. Buns included the hamburgeisha — with beef patty, American cheese, onion, kewpie mayo and mustard;  pulled pork — with beet hoisin, togarashi, garlic and sesame and a roasted ode to all things decadent, a bao stuffed with char siu beef heart and tongue, foie gras and scallion. With his experience in web and graphic design, Stone has been able to quickly launch new projects, handling the branding for each new undertaking, including Dill and Dough — him Porytko’s to-go pierogi concept. While the iconography favors clean designs, a close inspection can expose a love for the ribald.

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Porytko and Stone are a natural fit, both matching talent with well-calculated irreverence. Having previously handled beverage direction and spinning records at Middleman, Stone’s involvement with Porytko developed organically. A pierogi and pelmeni pop-up in March and April quickly bore the ongoing Dill and Dough, which is set to resume in the coming weeks. “I get a dumb idea, we figure out how to make it taste good, and the rest is history,” laughed Stone. Outside of their formal joint efforts, Stone can also be found from time to time helping out in the Misfit kitchen and with design elements, including the flyer for Porytko’s upcoming Yucatan dinner at Spuntino on August 25.

The duo’s recent dim sum brunch on Sunday, July 26 saw two seatings of 40 people go remarkably smoothly, despite a 12-course meal being furnished from Middleman’s closet-like kitchen. Items including the char siu pork balls with fried aioli and scallions, and the rice flour crepe — with either lychee ginger compote and coconut flake or crab, bok choy and coconut lime beurre blanc —  were delivered across the carefully-arranged space via cart. “The format really makes a lot of sense for getting people food safely,” remarked Stone.

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Continuing the collaborative streak, last week’s Pinched Taco takeover of the Misfit space saw Stone teaming up with Abril Morales — an El Paso native and service industry veteran with plans of continuing her culinary development in Oaxaca. The menu was decidedly compact, this time favoring well-executed classics. Tacos ($2) were limited to carnitas — with a secret spice blend and house-made Arbol salsa and calabacitas — a blend of zucchini, yellow squash, onion and fried chickpea with tomatillo salsa. The calabacitas enchiladas ($9) stuck closest to custom, utilizing a red sauce from one of Morales’ family recipes. The slightly more adventurous spring roll taquitos ($4) — a combination of chicken thigh, poblano and asadero and Oaxaca cheese blend, wrapped in a perfectly-crisped spring roll wrapper — still leaned nearer to tradition. The maple sausage spring rolls ($6) — with a mixture of maple pork sausage, vermicelli and maple-chili sauce — illustrated Stone’s knack for being forward-thinking even when downplaying the flamboyance.

Stone’s versatility has made transformation easy. “From concept to design took about 25 minutes,” said Stone, noting that The Pinched Taco’s current incarnation took hardly over a day to materialize. A collaborative waffle pop-up with Porytko is planned for August 23, with monthly events from the pair outlined for the last Sunday of each month.

Continued updates on upcoming events can be found on Instagram @thepinchedtaco

Middleman is located at 3401 East Colfax Ave., Denver. It is open for dine-in and takeout Wednesday – Sunday from 4 – 10 p.m., serving both cocktails and Misfit‘s menu.

All photography by Adrienne Thomas.