Photo by Matt Otto Our first date was underwhelming. Sure, Hiro was friendly and sophisticated and beckoned with quirky charm. But Hiro was ugly. Avert-your-eyes-and-don't-order-dessert ugly. Hiro tried too hard, wore too much cologne, sported a loud outfit that distracted me from a delicious dinner.
After our second encounter, however, I was smitten. Hiro's appearance didn't change a bit—I think Hiro will always reside on this side of homely, to be honest. But Hiro's food is the long-awaited culinary Popeye to my palate's Olive Oyl—my Hiro!
A bit of background: Café Hiro is a three-year-old Cypress eatery that has everything going for it except the design scheme. A sloppy bamboo fence half-heartedly leans against the entrance. Painted fluffy clouds loom on the ceiling like some perverse Precious Moments fantasy. Quiksilver-esque surf scenes, a painting of Jimi Hendrix, a happy-face sun mural and shelves heavy with country clutter crowd the walls. Café Hiro's setup is what you'd get if Goodwill decorated Denny's.
But Hiro's exquisite entrées—a fantastic fusion of Japanese, Italian, French and American—ensures a steady stream of suitors; ridiculously cheap prices guarantee many rendezvous. And the ahi poke appetizer special launches a thousand romances. Seared, warm and salty on the outside and chilled on the inside, the fish's buttery essence wonderfully contrasting the accompanying field greens' snappiness: verdant endive, crisp arugula, bitter radicchio and frissee. For some strange reason, though, the ahi's accompanying salad is the same roughage, except here topped with a biting miso-ginger dressing. A creamy asparagus soup bobbing with crushed tortilla strips quickly redeems this redundancy.
The ahi poke appetizer special is great, but not great enough the first time to draw my attention from Hiro's horrendous décor. The braised Kobe beef, however, did. The hunk of meat arrived on an austere white plate and was so tender I had trouble forking it into my mouth without pieces flopping off. A thick, sweet, déclassé sauce added oomph and made the Kobe beef feel even more indulgent. Now giggling and tossing my hair about like some Southern belle, I ordered sautéed shrimp with a sea urchin risotto. The risotto wasn't too fishy: its tomato-based sauce balances the plump shrimp. And the squiggly sea urchin made this meal the most successful marriage of Tokyo and Rome since the days of the Axis.
I was sensing something special, so I introduced Café Hiro to the family on my second trip. This time around, everything seemed less offensive. In the light of day, Hiro was more at ease, less mismatched. Sunlight flooded the small restaurant, softening the furnishings. The cheap checkered tablecloths that once made the place seem like a giant chessboard vanished, revealing gorgeous rough-hewn wooden tables. I now noticed a Zen counter, an open kitchen with chefs dodging one another, and rows and rows of sake bottles. With every glance around, the place got a little more attractive, like a middle-school crush.
Reggae played softly as I took a bite of roasted Chilean sea bass with asparagus. The portion was surprisingly generous for the price, and the asparagus came peeled and crisp—an unnecessary, gracious touch. A light sauce complemented but didn't upstage the flavor of the fish. My mom ordered a pepper-crusted rib-eye steak special and smiled—a good sign. The steak possessed a slight tinge of wine and was bathed in a garlic-soy sauce my mom declared the best soy sauce ever.
But it was my sister's chicken-cutlet curry that I kept looting. The chicken crunched like Styrofoam in your hand—Hiro's chefs delicately fry the hen with Panco, a fancy Japanese bread-crumb coating that is to fried food preparation what Charles Shaw is to wine. The curry sauce was brown, sweet and mild with a can't-help-but-swipe-some-more quality. My sis didn't mind that I eventually just took the curry plate from her—Café Hiro was my find, after all.
After the curry came dessert. Mom ordered crème brûlée garnished with walnuts, sis dug into a rich pot de chocolate, and I happily spooned the green-tea-flavored panna cotta. We ladies were in agreement: Café Hiro is a keeper. My dad, however, grumbled that the servings should've been bigger—what kind of girlie place was this? “It is sophisticated and smart,” I sniffed. “And it, uh, makes me happy.” No one bad-mouths my culinary boyfriend.
Café Hiro, 10509 Valley View St., Cypress, (714) 527-6090. Open Tues.-Thur., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. N 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. N 5:30 p.m.-midnight; Sat., noon-3 p.m. N 5:30 p.m.-midnight; Sun., noon-3 p.m. N 5-9:30 p.m. Full bar. Dinner for two, $25, Food only. Mastercard and visa accepted.