You will never find sweet and sour chicken on our menu," proclaims Bernie Lee, owner of Hiro Asian Kitchen, with a messianic fervor. "There are a thousand other places in town who serve that. If you want it, go there. It's not who we are."
Pushing diners beyond their comfort zones is a bold move, especially for a fledgling restaurant trying to find its way in a fairly conservative market. But this is exactly what Lee hopes to do with Hiro Asian Kitchen, Washington Avenue's celebration of East Asian cuisine. And that's not to say American culinary culture is still lost in the beef-with-broccoli age when it comes to Asian cuisine — dim sum dumplings have worked their way into the mainstream, Vietnamese pho enjoyed its time as an "it" dish. With Hiro, Lee wants to build on that by bringing St. Louis the flavors of Singapore, Taiwan and his native Malaysia — all of which differ markedly from their better-known cousins. To do so, Lee says, he is using the recipes that he grew up with, straight from his mother's kitchen.
That sentiment does not inform the dining room, however. Hiro exudes hip Hong Kong nightclub-chic with oversized bamboo globes floating from the lofted ceilings, contemporary light wood booths and chairs, and a sleek bar that oozes a slick Asian-fusion feel. It's a far cry from the family hearth and far grander than Hiro's first iteration, a small sushi restaurant in the Loop that closed to make way for Washington University's $80 million expansion on the corner of Delmar Boulevard and Eastgate Avenue.
The mod feel is limited to the décor, however. Lee is a warm host who walks from table to table explaining, in painstaking detail, how dishes are prepared and why they are prepared the way they are. Everything has a story, from soups his mom served when he was feeling under the weather to special-occasion meals that the family shared around the table. Lee proudly points out the diners who are expats like him — he considers their patronage and willingness to share wistful memories of home with him to be the greatest compliment to the restaurant.
One of the dishes that transports us to Mrs. Lee's kitchen is the Hiro ramen, a delicate yet richly flavored pork broth filled to the brim with soft, nutty wheat noodles. This is not the freeze-dried salt bomb of starving college students. Though that has been most Americans' experience with the dish since the 1950s, ramen is actually a respectable tradition throughout parts of Asia. When done in the authentic style, as at Hiro, the result is a nuanced soup. This particular iteration contains soft pork belly and generous portions of bok choy that almost melt in the mouth after stewing in broth. Hiro also drops a soy-sauce-soaked hard-boiled egg in the soup— a trick, Lee explains, his parents used to get some cheap but flavorful protein into the dish.
The pork-belly gua bao, served as one of Hiro's small plates, consists of seared pork belly sandwiched between two steamed buns. These were not overly dense, but rather light, airy, starchy and a little sticky. Pickled cucumber and carrot added some necessary moisture, and chopped peanuts gave the dish a little texture. I had mixed feelings about the sparseness of the sweet plum sauce; a little went a long way because of its concentrated salty-sweetness, but a little more could have given the dish just a touch more oomph. Likewise, the single slice of pork belly was somewhat lost between the large buns. Expect subtlety, rather than an oozing sandwich.
For oozy, go for the lobster rangoon, a savory, gooey dream (though it steps outside the margins of Lee's story of an authentic Asian kitchen). The outer wrapper is light, crispy and cigar-shaped, filled generously with chunks of lobster meat and cream cheese. A simple red chile sauce added some spicy sweetness to the plate. Unlike the more spartan pork gua bao, this satisfyingly overstuffed appetizer had me almost at blows with my partner for the last piece. These are probably not what one would find on offer at a Taiwanese night market, but they were so good that I really didn't care.
The chicken clay pot "Taipei-style" is a house specialty straight out of Lee's childhood. The chicken's thick, gingery sauce seems far too complex to be made from just soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine, but the ingredients reduce and comingle to create a sticky pool in the searing hot bowl for the meat to simmer in. Unfortunately, I found the bone fragments in the dish to be extremely difficult to negotiate. One has to chew about twice as slowly as normal to avoid ingesting the inedible particles— I fear this is a personal-injury lawsuit waiting to happen. That's a pity since the flavor of the dish is so good, it may even be worth the risk.
Less adventurous eaters will find the flank steak is a tasty, approachable option. The meat is marinated and glazed with a peppery soy and hoisin sauce that charred up nicely after sizzling on the grill. A drizzle of black-bean sauce gave the side of sweet potatoes a rich umami flavor, and the buttery bok choy accompaniment took on a gentle salty pungency from perfectly caramelized shallots.
The goji-steamed sole was a study in nuance and delicacy. The fish rested in an almost tea-like broth, equally light and complex from flavors of goji berry and coriander. In fact, perhaps the fish was treated too delicately — mine arrived undercooked (large segments were still clear), an unfortunate mistake that took away from a potentially excellent dish.
Missteps aside, it's easy to appreciate the soul in Hiro's heartfelt food. By sharing with us the cuisine of his youth, Lee is able to sidestep becoming yet another anonymous sushi parlor or a purveyor of forgettable, fried hangover food. In a town full of mediocre Asian food, Hiro comes to the rescue.