Hiro Asian Kitchen
I have purposely avoided eating at Hiro since returning to St. Louis, which doesn't make much sense coming from a guy who is constantly whining about missing Southeast Asian cuisine. I was afraid the food wouldn't be good or up to my standards, then I'd come here and criticize it like some pretentious a-hole. After nearly a year, Patrick Devine (of La Patisserie Chouquette) convinced me to go. He had yet to lead me astray with recommendations, plus he makes really delicious pastries, so off I went to Washington Avenue for dinner. The restaurant's decor stands out compared to every other Asian restaurant I can think of in St. Louis, which is to say it's got a modern design and actually looks good. Mounted soup bowls make a wave down one wall, reminding me of Singapore's Ippudo Ramen. The room is lit by rattan light fixtures, each one unique, that scream Bali. It is undoubtedly cool.
I decided I needed to try just about everything Hiro had to offer (I had other people with me, so don't judge thinking I ate all this alone). The first choice was an off the menu special: [symple_highlight color="blue"]Pandan leaf wrapped chicken[/symple_highlight]. Pandan leaves are used similarly to banana leafs in Southeast Asia, but the pandan leaves a distinctive taste that is best described as a grassy vanilla. If you've ever had kaya spread that was green, it had pandan cooked into it.
One bite into the chicken and I knew Bernie Lee had some skills. The chicken was as juicy as chicken gets, with hints of tropical spices. I think the dish was a take on a Thai classic, with the chicken marinated in coconut milk and ginger, then fried. The sugar on the outside caramelizes, giving it a little crunch.
[symple_highlight color="blue"]Housemade pickles[/symple_highlight] came out next. That day's were a Malaysian-style called achar, one of my favorites. You get hit with the tang of the vinegar mixed with a little funk from fish sauce, followed by the sweet burn of tamarind mixed with chile sauce. These might have been the most sought after veggies we've ever had at a meal. Everyone was fighting for a bite.
Don't tell anyone, but when I would feel like eating something lard-heavy in Singapore, I'd head over to Ippudo and get a big bowl of tonkotsu ramen and a pork bun. That's a huge amount of pork fat to consume in one sitting. When you have a good pork bun, oh my god, it brings a little tear to your eye. The bun at Hiro was...outstanding. Pillowy soft steam bread following by the crunch of pickled veggies and sweetness of plum sauce. Then the pork. Buttery soft pork belly with a smokey and crispy crust around it. I wish I had gotten to eat both of these: one for each hand.
We were the first people to eat Hiro's new [symple_highlight color="blue"]Korean-style fried chicken[/symple_highlight]. Lucky us! What makes Korean fried chicken special is the insane level of crunch they have on them-something Hiro managed to mimic quite well. They were tossed in a Korean inspired sauce, which I would guess was a mix ofthe Korean chili paste gochujang, sesame oil, sugar, soy and rice vinegar. The result is mildly spicy, a little sweet and all around delicious. Think of it like Asian buffalo sauce. These were some of the best wings I've had in St. Louis, without a doubt. By this point, everything on the starter front had been decimated.
You thought I was done with the appetizers, didn't you? You were mistaken. I gave into temptation and got the [symple_highlight color="blue"]lotus leaf wrapped sticky rice[/symple_highlight], a traditional Chinese dish. It had mushrooms, smoked tofu, Chinese sausage and chicken inside of it, as well as a dark soy style sauce. This is a little more "advanced" than the other dishes, but totally authentic. Yet another dish we finished very quickly.
The entrees are unintentionally in order of their deliciousness ranking. This first one is the [symple_highlight color="blue"]crispy tofu[/symple_highlight] covered with an Asian slaw and jalapeño-peanut sauce. The real issue with this dish compared to the others was that it was relatively light and healthy-just not what I was in the mood for that night. It reminded me of a Thai som tum papaya salad with the really bright freshness of the veggies and sauce. If you're ever missing summer, give this dish a try.
I was nervous for this one: Hiro's house made [symple_highlight color="blue"]dim sum platter[/symple_highlight]. I figured they'd get the shrimp dumpling, har gow on the bottom left, down and I was right. The filling was crunchy and shrimp filled and the wrapper held up well in the steamer. A classic.
In the middle with the orange on top is the densepork shumai. I didn't get to try one but my sister proclaimed that it was very tasty.
My favorite dumpling in the world was left. It's EXTREMELY tough to get right. It's the xiao long bao, also known as the Shanghai Soup Dumpling. If you're ever near a Din Tai Fung restaurant, you MUST go. I'll hate you forever if you don't. They are the pinnacle of XLB's-perfectly wrapped little packages filled with seasoned pork meat and a little slurp of tasty, tasty pork soup. My standards for them are unwaveringly high, which resulted in these little guys being the most disappointing thing I ate at Hiro. They were homemade and certainly better than the crap frozen ones a lot of local Chinese restaurants serve, but they just weren't Din Tai Fung worthy.
[symple_highlight color="blue"]Beef rendang[/symple_highlight] is the barbacoa of Southeast Asia. You get a big pile meat that has been braised for hours with a myriad of spices and ingredients. When rendang is done right, it gets this incredibly rich flavor that you can't quite place; ginger, garlic, nuts, chiles are boiled with coconut milk, cinnamon, lemongrass and lime leaves. It's tropical and exotic, but tastes oddly familiar.
I ate a lot of rendang in Asia and I have to be honest: this is the best I've ever had. When I attempted to make rendang in my apartment, this is what I was hoping the end result would be. It never was. I don't know what secrets Bernie has for his recipe, but they're working. If you're a fan of braised beef, this is a must order.
Another one of my Singapore hawker center vices was [symple_highlight color="blue"]claypot chicken[/symple_highlight], though Hiro's version is the slightly different Taiwanese take on it. The gist of the dish is a bunch of delicious ingredients are cooked in a claypot until they become this sticky, caramel colored stew, brought out to the table still boiling. Once the server takes off the lid, the salivating begins. The aroma is almost worth the price of the dish alone! Hiro's version has chicken, eggplant, basil and a sweet soy reduction. It's a killer dish for winter.
I'd love for them to make the Singaporean version sometime. It's nearly the same dish, except there's rice at that bottom that gets crunchy and so, so good as the sweet sauce seeps down and caramelizes. I am so hungry now.
Dessert was some kind of coconut cake, but by this point I was at peak fullness. There was no room for cake.
The best meals are the ones that take you somewhere, that make you feel something. Hiro took me back to Singapore's hawker stands and food courts. To Din Tai Fung and all the great meals I had there with friends and colleagues. It took me back to a lunch I had after on a rainy afternoon in Taiwan and the dog outside the restaurant that knew only to cross the street when the "Walk" sign beeped. It took me back to a coma inducing all-you-can-eat Korean fried chicken dinner with my girlfriend . Eating there brought a whirlwind of nostalgia and memories I hadn't thought about in months or years. It was a great meal.
I look forward to many more at Hiro.
1405 Washington Ave
St. Louis, MO 63103