Does the wizard of casual pan-Asian food still have his magic touch or has he finally hit a Great Wall?
Bento has become a bonafide staple of Gainesville. Whether you think its quality has gone somewhat downhill (example: me), or you just don’t like the food in general, it’s stood the test of time for at least a good five years (I know it’s more, I just don’t feel like doing research). You and I probably use it as a reference point for “decent, quick Asian food that’s not Chinese takeout”. After a good few years of sticking with Bento, the creators of the chain decided to branch out and do yogurt. Not just any yogurt, but self-serve pay-by-the-ounce yogurt. Coming from the Orlando suburbs, I think I would’ve at least heard if something like it had been done back home…but it hadn’t. Not saying that it started some nationwide trend, but it was hot enough to cause a real big stir in Titletown (and even caused a national chain, Red Mango, to invest in some stores here). But Mochi even outlasted Red Mango, even despite reports of Mochi using simply Dannon yogurt plus ice to make their flavors, and Red Mango was forced to shut down all of their locations (minus the Oaks Mall location but let’s be real they’re closing that one too soon enough). And, more importantly, it made people forget that a Ben and Jerry’s existed (that was a tough pill to swallow though).
Sushi Chao went off that same Mochi model but did it with Bento food. And while some will complain more about their food than others, I still see a steady stream of people and food coming out of there daily when I drive by the plaza on University. All of these restaurants prove that there’s a genius behind all of this. Or at least a relatively smart businessman/restauranteur behind the curtain.
When I heard about Hiro opening up though, I was a bit befuddled. Why stick your neck out anymore? Why take risks that are completely unnecessary? When I heard that it was a “sandwich bistro”, I was even more befuddled. Why not try and just integrate it into a new Bento menu? But I’m just a student. I don’t know business. And I came to realize that he was trying to fill a niche that didn’t even exist before: approachable Asian fusion. When you read the descriptions of the sandwiches, your mouths aren’t necessarily salivating…but you’re left with a wilder sense of curiosity than usual.
Anyway, I’ve talked enough about the history of Bento/Mochi/Chao. Let me get to the point, which is the answer to the question that I posed at the beginning of this article: the magic may have run out.
Hiro still keeps to its Bento roots by being a casual dining place…no waiters, just people (unsurprisingly, again, females) bringing out your food to your when its ready. They (probably) used the same architectural designer who did an absolutely amazing job as always, utilizing some sort of Modern Asian theme. The food descriptions tickle your curiosity as much as the decor does. The “shake station” for your fries makes you really want to, erm, shake.
But that’s where it all ends.
I ordered a sandwich called the “Miyagi Five-O”, described as the following: “teriyaki chicken, romaine lettuce, pineapple, caramelized onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, side of teriyaki sauce”. I also got fries and a drink, thinking that the fries would be cooked in some way that was different….or at least, less disappointing than Relish’s fries (yes they still suck don’t get them). While I was waiting, the nice people gave me my fries and oriented me to the “Shake station” where there were several different shakers.
Too bad I couldn’t see what was inside of them. Yes, they were labeled, but seeing spices gives me an idea of what I’m up against. So I had to be an idiot and sniff each one of the shakers (sorry, but “curry” to me sometimes means something different). I ended up just going for salt and pepper. The fries were just fries. They probably bought them at Sams’ Club, who knows. A little more uniqueness couldn’t hurt. Tempura sweet potato fries maybe?
And then I waited. Munched on some fries. Watched highlights of the 5 OT Notre Dame basketball game. Waited. Refill. Waited. Watched highlights of the Wisconsin upset of Michigan. Waited. Waited. Oh, and after 15 minutes there’s my food. Oh god, it looks…unexciting.
But hey, looks are deceiving (or so I tell myself on a semi-daily basis). Bit into it…and I felt like I was biting into matter. With a tinge of soy sauce. I’ve eaten bland food before, but this was really bland. I said to myself “this is what horses taste when they chew wet grass”. The peppers tasted like nothing. The bread was OK. The mushrooms tasted like nothing. The smell of soy sauce/teriyaki sauce was there, but there was no taste. I took the chicken out to see maybe if the veggies were the culprit…but nope. The teriyaki chicken tasted bland, like it had barely rolled around in teriyaki sauce. It was so bland that I just simply ate the chicken from my other half of the sandwich and threw the rest away. Oh, and no pineapple. None.
To say I was disappointed is an understatement. To wait that long and get only a sub-mediocre sandwich? This wasn’t what I was expecting. Yes, OK, the Yelp reviews aren’t the greatest, but people were raving about the Pork Bulgogi sandwich named “Seoul Good”. But if they can’t even make a simple chicken teriyaki, I don’t understand how they can make a pork bulgogi (which is somewhat more complex in its marinade)?
I want to believe that I went on a wrong day or time. But I can’t. Prove me otherwise and I’ll be grateful.
Hiro: Asian Sandwich Bistro
Grade: D for disappointing
Pros: Friendly service, great decor
Cons: uninspiring and bland food, prep time too long for undesirable product.