A Japanese Gem

If you were to visit Hiro's Yakko-San once a week and sample five items each time, it would take seven and a half months to taste every offering (and you'd still miss some of the specials that change nightly). I don't make it to this Japanese restaurant nearly that often, but I stop by any time I'm in the vicinity of North Miami Beach — because, quite simply, there is no better eatery in the area. I'd come for only the juicy, panko-crusted fried oysters. Or for the breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet atop sticky rice with piquant brown curry sauce and pinkly pickled radish slices. Or for the buttery, soft barbecue short rib (kalbee yakiniku), which at $12 is about as expensive as Yakko-San gets. (Most selections are less than $10, many under $5.)

Hiro's Yakko-San is located in a strip mall, next door to Hiro's Sushi Express, the same owners' take-out chain (with three local branches). Since opening in 2000, Yakko has become an enormously popular destination, and because no reservations are taken, chances are you might have to mill around the mall awhile before securing a seat. On the other hand, the restaurant serves food until 3:30 a.m. seven days a week! The reason for these seemingly unreasonable hours is that cooks and restaurateurs in the area, which is stocked with Asian dining establishments, flock to Yakko-San to dine after they've put away their own pots and pans for the night. And sushi chefs are known to sashay here from afar. No words I write can possibly serve as higher praise than that.

The chefs surely don't come to gawk at the décor. On the left side of the plain main room is an open kitchen/grill area, separated from the dining area by a counter with fourteen stools; it looks a little like a sushi slicing station, but sushi isn't served here. The rest of the space comprises nothing more exciting than tables and chairs that altogether seat 60. Specials of the day, including local catches such as hogfish snapper, are posted on the walls.


Hiro's Yakko-San

17040 W Dixie Hwy, North Miami Beach; 305-947-0064

Open for dinner daily 6:00 p.m. to 3:30 a.m.

The simplicity and unpretentiousness of ambiance extend to the cuisine, which is freshly cooked and straightforwardly presented. Servings are what trendier digs refer to as "small plates" and here are tabbed "Japanese tapas." I like to think of it as being like a dim sum dinner, but with different foods. And without the carts. So I dine with a dim sum strategy, which is to order a few plates for starters, then a few more, and on and on in limited increments until it's clear that my companions and I can eat no more. Then we get dessert.

There are so many ways to start, none lighter than stylish sashimi selections available in combos or à la carte. Seared slices of tuna tataki were terrific, puddled in a ponzu punched with scallions and garlic. Other uncomplicated pleasures include a basket brimming with steamed edamame beans; crisply fried bok choy drizzled with garlic soy dressing; Japanese eggplant in bright ginger-sesame broth (age-nasu); and pirikara konnyaku, which we tried despite a description that included the ominous combination of the words spicy and potato Jell-O. I was expecting it to be a cold dish (isn't Jell-O usually?), so when I bit into the jiggly, dark brown cubes, the heat shocked my senses in a molecular-gastronomic sort of way. The taste was more accessible than you might guess, mostly redolent of the warm sesame-spiked broth below, with a smoky finish to each bite provided by fish flakes on top. We also relished una tama tofu, a circular omelet of tofu and eel bound with mushrooms, herbs, and savory sauce.

Hot pots hit the spot as well. The kim chee version features slices of that spicy cabbage with morsels of pork, soft cubes of tofu, and baby clams in their shells, all adrift in a delectably piquant broth. Yaki udon brings thick, chewy white strands of udon noodles splendidly threaded with julienned carrots, red peppers, Napa cabbage, and chive flowers, and sautéed with protein of choice. We picked pork.

Yakko-San's menu, with so many items unavailable elsewhere, might tempt you to be daring in your choices, but the highly efficient, no-nonsense staff will serve warning if you order too audaciously. For instance, when I requested soybean brother soup, our waiter looked me in the eyes, shook his head from side to side, and quietly said something to the effect of: "No, you don't want this." "It's okay," I replied, in a tone meant to assure him we were plucky diners appreciative of authenticity. But although a very pleasant man, he was rather insistent. He wasn't worried we wouldn't savor the miso broth, tofu, tofu skin, or scallion of the soup, but he knew that natto, or fermented soy bean paste, was a very tough taste for first-timers. Still, I was feeling a little resentment at his assumption we weren't up to snuff in sniffing this foreign flavor, so I tried again to convince him otherwise. This time I lied: "I know natto; it's fermented and tastes very strong, and there's no problem — really, we're fine with it." When the soup bowl arrived at the table a little while later, and the lid was lifted, oh brother! My wife, being kind, referred to the aroma as "yeasty"; it reminded her of one of our least favorite foods: the pasty brown British spread Marmite. I thought it smelled like cream of clammy foot soup, and couldn't make it past a taste or two of the cheesy/salty brew. My advice: Unless you're Japanese, avoid the natto category of dishes altogether. Also: Trust your waiter.

The only warning we received regarding okonomiyaki, described as "Japanese pizza, veggies, egg on brown sauce, mayo," is that it would take about 35 minutes to prepare. It is well worth the wait. The scrumptiously puffy pancake/omelet is prepared from a batter of flour, eggs, grated yam, scallions, cabbage, nori, and Lord knows what other ingredients, fried on both sides in a hot little pan and topped with Worcestershire-ish sauce, fish flakes, and squiggles of mayonnaise.

Less exotic fare is tendered for more timid diners. Fried pork dumplings (gyoza) are tasty and tame, as are fried rice selections, grilled New York strip steak, and a skin-on/bone-off chicken thigh cutlet sautéed with sake, soy, sesame, and ginger. Most everyone loves a good tempura, and the ones here are terrific; try the house specialty of deep-fried chrysanthemum, the bright green leaves perfectly crisp in crystalline batter.

Meats, from thin slivers of beef tongue to similarly slim snippets of grilled pork belly, were on the tough side. A spicy lamb steak, cut from the shoulder, tasted great from a marination in red chili peppers, sake, and soy, but it, too, was dry and mostly bone. A tender exception (along with the aforementioned short ribs) was yakiniku steak, luscious slices of beef marinated in a mango-tone barbecue sauce.

Desserts — big, tall, and fortified with whipped cream — are more Americanized than other menu items, but don't hold that against them. Cylinders of fried cheesecake rolls contain pleasingly puddinglike centers, and an ice cream "volcano" layered with cookies comes with a luscious hot "lava" of sweet adzuki bean sauce.

Ocha-zuke! That's one dish I've yet to try (it's rice over green tea broth, with choice of accompanying garnish). Another is zou-sui, an egg-and-rice soup. Never has the lightly salted chicken wing (tebashio) passed my lips, nor the trigger fish jerky (dried kawahagi), or any of the variously stuffed rice balls (onigiri). Sitting down to a plate of angel hair uni ikura, the skinny pasta tossed with fresh sea urchin and salmon roe, is something else I still have to look forward to — and truth be told, I haven't made even the slightest dent in the two dozen sake selections. The menu at Hiro's Yakko-San is dementedly extensive, and the food is insanely good. That's why I'm just crazy about the place.


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