Pick up bowls of good, cheap Japanese food at Hiro's

So long have we Seattleites been blessed with an abundance of good sushi and cheap teriyaki that it's easy to forget that Japanese food involves more than fingers of rice, slices of raw fish and saucy grilled meats.

Hiro's, a popular lunch spot on Beacon Hill, stakes out that forgotten middle ground, offering a variety of traditional Japanese and Japanese-American fare at staggeringly low prices.

The room is nothing fancy: a counter for ordering and pickup, some posters on the walls, seven green tables — only one of which seats more than two — and a TV showing Japanese TV or video. You can peer into the huge kitchen (they're also a successful catering business) while picking up your silverware. The restaurant is a relaxing space, even when it's packed with neighborhood regulars.

Hiro's is in the heart of what has quietly become a great ethnic dining strip on Beacon Avenue South and is not more than a short walk from good Filipino, Chinese and Mexican restaurants; the clientele at Hiro's is as diverse as you'd expect.

The menu features a bit of sushi, mostly maki (rolls), including the ever-popular California roll ($4) and the local favorite smoked salmon roll ($4). There's also inari (75 cents), sushi rice served in a fried tofu pocket. Beef and chicken teriyaki ($4.95 each) are available. But most of Hiro's offerings include the classic Asian combination of a big bowl of rice and plenty of stuff to pile atop it: shrimp or vegetable tempura, pork cutlet, potstickers, boneless fried chicken or a combination. The combo meals are an especially good deal — you can choose three menu items for $6.50. Big bowls of udon and soba noodles are also available, such as kitsune ("fox") udon, so called because it is rumored that foxes love the fried tofu served atop the noodle bowl.

Few meals in Japan are served without pickled vegetables (tsukemono), and neither are the meals at Hiro's. Most choices come with a small bowl of salt-pickled cabbage (shiozuke), a bit like the Korean kimchi but neither spicy nor stinky. You can toss them in with your rice or eat them as a palate cleanser as you would pickled ginger slices at a sushi bar.

The regular lunches are quite substantial, but Hiro's also has what sounds like a prodigious deluxe bento box ($8.95), which contains no less than nine items, including delicious broiled mackerel, miso soup, fruit and tea.

Hiro's will never be confused with Belltown's Shiro's, but that suits this unassuming restaurant just fine.

Check Please:

All lunch combos are served with pickled cabbage, shredded cabbage salad, cold sesame noodles and short-grain rice.

Ginger pork: Slices of lean pork are brushed with a soy-ginger glaze. Brightened by a squirt of the house chili-garlic sauce, the meat is satisfyingly chewy without being tough.

Tonkatsu: The Japanese version of a pork chop, tonkatsu is a thin slice of boneless pork, breaded in panko (fine breadcrumbs) and fried. Hiro's tonkatsu arrives crunchy and without a drop of grease; you can add sweet soy-based sauce from a squirt bottle.

Saba shioyaki: Mackerel is often derogated as an oily fish by people who would never think to use a word like "oily" to describe a fillet of salmon or a juicy steak. In cooking, fat is a virtue, and few preparations capitalize better on an animal's natural fat reserves than saba shioyaki, Japanese-style salted and broiled mackerel. Hiro's does mackerel right, crisp-skinned and juicy like the best fried chicken, with full but not fishy flavor.

Potato croquette: These little fried potato cakes were salty and satisfying as long as I didn't think about how much they reminded me of fast-food hash browns.

Gyoza: The only disappointing item, these potstickers were mushy and bland, evidencing little contact with a hot wok.

Itemized bill, meal for two

Three-item lunch combo (tonkatsu, gyoza, saba shioyaki): $6.50

Three-item lunch combo (ginger pork, croquette, saba shioyaki): $6.50

Tax: $1.21

Total: $14.21

Matthew Amster-Burton: mamster@mamster.net.


32091/2 Beacon Ave. S., Seattle




Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. No obstacles to access / cash only / no liquor license.