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Feb 25, 2018
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Posts Tagged ‘Bernie Lee’

What I Do: Heidi Hamamura at Guerrilla Street Food

Monday, January 1st, 2018



Heidi Hamamura’s culinary education started when she absorbed her father, chef Naomi Hamamura’s, knowledge of sushi, Japanese and French fare in their kitchen after school. Since then, she has made a career out of exploring new cuisines: Italian with Jamey Trochtop at Stellina, Malaysian and Chinese with Bernie Lee at Hiro Asian Kitchen and modernist fine dining with Ben Grupe at Elaia. Now she’s diving into Filipino fare as executive chef of Guerrilla Street Food’s upcoming location on The Loop.


“The most I’ve had was five jobs at one time. It was intense, but I kept myself busy. … It’s like if someone likes yoga – loves it. It’s like going to different yoga classes all the time. Me going to different restaurants all the time and working was just fun. It was less like work.”

“My dad always told me you have to enjoy what you’re doing, and if you don’t, then I won’t back you up in life. If you love McDonald’s and you want to work at McDonald’s and you love everything about the company, then I will support you 100 percent. But if you work at McDonald’s and you bitch about life and complain all the time and do nothing about it, I’m not going to help you.”

“[My son] cooks already with my dad, too. … He likes to help cook his meals. He drags a chair over and wants to help hold the pan and sprinkle the salt on. He’s already there. My mom’s like, ‘No, you’re supposed to be a doctor!’”

“Since I didn’t go to culinary school, I promised [Trochtop] I wouldn’t leave if he taught me something new every day – a new word, anything. Even after work, I’d come back for my third shift and help him roll pasta until two in the morning. We’d grab a beer and roll pasta together because I wanted to learn.”

“Ben Grupe was one of the chefs that really inspired me. That’s the kind of cooking that I want to learn, that I love. It might be a small dish, but there is so much flavor in that, and creativity. It’s like art – you don’t want to eat it.”

“If we could find someone to open a [Japanese street food bar] in St. Louis, it would make so much money. … If the right investor comes or if I win the lottery, that would be really fun to do.”

“Making sushi is by far the most fun for me. … It’s the interaction and the different kinds of ways you can create and make sushi and display it. It’s like an art form. There are so many different ways you can beef up sushi or display an array of sashimi with different vegetables that go with certain fish or different spices. … I can eat sushi every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

“I remember the first time my dad took me out [to the lake]. … We were sitting on the boat drinking beers, and I had my fishing pole in the water and the sunset is going down and I said, ‘Whoever the hell created fishing is a genius. This is the best feeling ever.’”

Photo by Ashley Gieseking

Catherine Klene is managing editor, digital at Sauce Magazine. 

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What I Do: Bernie Lee of Hiro Asian Kitchen

Wednesday, October 4th, 2017



Leaving everyone and everything you know to come to the United States and pursue a dream is the quintessential immigrant experience. Hiro Asian Kitchen owner Bernie Lee’s story is no different. After leaving Malaysia to study, learn the culture and improve his English in St. Louis, Lee seized the opportunity to open his own restaurant (609 Restaurant & U Lounge).

Now Lee serves some of the city’s best Asian fusion at Hiro, where he has slowly added Malaysian dishes he grew up eating. At first, he wanted to have a business that welcomed all people. Now, it’s become a place where he can share his culture.


“You just have to learn how to survive. When I was in [college], one of my classmates told me I spoke the worst English he ever heard in his life. It was so embarrassing. I didn’t know how to express myself. In my class, I was always the last pick [in a group presentation] because they thought I didn’t speak well. I spoke six other languages they didn’t even understand. But it forced me to be better.”

“I’m Malaysian-Chinese. My parents are first-generation Malaysian-Chinese. My grandparents in the 1940s were refugees. They escaped from China, from the revolution, very young – 15, 16, 17. They were very poor, and as refugees, what do they know? They worked. They had tons of babies – work, have a baby, work, have a baby. Refugees, they all have to go through the same things. It’s never easy.”

“The motivation behind 609 was I was not treated nicely at a bar one day. I was bullied in public. I told myself someday I need to create a place where everybody is welcome. Two years later, I had an opportunity to open my own place. To be honest, I was 27, I was young. I said, ‘Screw it, let’s do it! If I fail, I fail.’”

“Americans only eat fish fillet. No bone! No skin! No head! No tail! Nothing! So that’s what I had been taught. Only fillet. So, this is what I know. I had opened 609 and one day I thought, ‘Why don’t we do whole fish?’ People said, ‘No, no, no. Nobody will touch that!’ All right. One day I went to [a local restaurant], and it’s all white folks, and they tell me, ‘Our most famous dish is a red snapper.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s order that.’ It came out whole fried red snapper! Everyone was ordering it, loving it, no problem. You go to this restaurant, pay $30 for a whole crispy fish – it’s just salt, pepper that’s it – you think it’s a great dish. The whole fish in an Asian restaurant, people say, ‘Oh, hell no.’ And I bet they would not even pay $15 for it. It drives me nuts. That’s why for Malaysian Week we [had] whole fish. Head, tail, bone, everything. This is how we eat it back home and that’s how it should be.”

“Just cook it the way you want it. I tell the kitchen, don’t worry how people will like it or not like it. If they don’t like it? Fine! Sorry! Pick another one. I’m very proud of them.”

“Even though the plate is nice, it still has the flavor that reminds them of home. The chicken clay pot [at Hiro], the origin is from Taiwan; we cook it Taiwanese style. This is a dish like meatball pasta – everybody makes good meatball pasta, but when you eat it you go, ‘Oh, my mom’s is better.’ One woman ordered it, and I saw she was crying. I asked if she was OK, I thought she maybe burned herself. She said, ‘No, this dish reminds me of my mom.’ Her mom had passed away. She said, ‘We ate this when we were kids, this is exactly what my mom would cook.’”

“You have to trust yourself. You have to believe in your culture. If you believe, you can deliver. If you don’t believe, there’s no point.”

Photo by Ashley Gieseking

Meera Nagarajan is art director at Sauce Magazine. 

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Drink This Weekend Edition: Hiro Asian Kitchen’s brunch cocktails

Friday, March 14th, 2014


{From left: The Bloody Tokyo, The Bloody Hiro}

Now that I have a kid (who wakes up at 6 a.m. almost every day), brunch has taken on a whole new meaning. Bringing a baby isn’t entirely frowned upon, we still get to see friends, and we can go to bed at 8 p.m. without feeling lame.

This Sunday, March 16, Hiro Asian Kitchen debuts its brunch menu, which will be served Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Until now, this chic Asian fusion restaurant and lounge, located at 1405 Washington Ave., has only served lunch and dinner, but its inventive and delicious Sunday brunch offerings are not to be missed, especially its cocktails. Not too mention Hiro’s stylish décor and hip vibe will make you feel like you’re having a raging night on the town, even at 11:30 Sunday morning.

Among cocktails, Hiro’s brunch menu features two bloody marys. If you were carousing late the night before, I recommend drinking both. The Bloody Hiro is made with Sriracha vodka, soy sauce, Sichuan pepper salt and garnished with a thick piece of house-cured bacon. Continuing Hiro’s Asian fusion concept, Bloody Tokyo has a sake base, is garnished with spicy wasabi-coated peas, and the glass is rimmed with wasabi salt.



{From left: Sunshine, Lychee-Tini}

On the sweeter – but not too sweet side – Hiro has several great options. “These are happy drinks. These speak to what we do here,” said owner Bernie Lee. Try Sunshine, a cocktail loaded with Wild Tea vodka, elderflower liquor, Aperol and blood orange bitters.

Another subtly sweet cocktail, the Lychee-Tini is a must. Seriously. It’s my new favorite cocktail. I don’t know why we haven’t been drinking this take on a bellini forever. It’s so simple: Champagne with lychee puree, and the flavors are perfectly balanced.



{Green tea waffle}

Not in the mood for a cocktail? You can’t really go wrong with any of the new brunch items, but the green tea waffle is just out of control. With light hints of green tea, the waffle is topped with vanilla ice cream, house-made coconut cream, fresh fruit and then drizzled with a syrup made with sake.




This week, Ligaya Figueras is obsessed with…

Thursday, September 12th, 2013


Our annual Guide to Drinking was published as part of the September issue of Sauce. Since I’m thinking liquids all month long, here are three more favorites glasses I can’t get enough of.




{What do you do when you can’t decide between beer and wine? You get close to both by opening a bottle of Proximity, a wheat ale brewed with the juice of sauvignon blanc grapes. Part of Blue Moon Brewing Co.’s Vintage Ale Collection, this beer-wine hybrid is light, citrusy and floral, and it proved to prissy me that I am quite capable of polishing off a magnum.}



{At Pastaria R&D, the unique three-course dinners offered Monday nights at Niche, great pasta tastes even better when you order wine pairings. You’ll get a sip of some unique wines you might not ever get to try. A few weeks ago, I was in heaven with a glass of R. López de Heredia Viña Todonia Viura 1991 Malvasia Gran Reserva Rioja, a white Rioja that sells for $179 on the bottle list. Thank you, Niche beverage director Michael Murphy!}



{On a recent visit to Hiro Asian Kitchen, I spotted owner Bernie Lee on the front patio working on his laptop – but sipping something pretty. Turns out it was Hiro’s house-made sangria. I learned two lessons that day. One: Sake tastes terrific in sangria, lending flavor while keeping things light and refreshing. Two: Order what the boss drinks. He usually knows what he’s doing.}


The Scoop: Hiro taking Pan-Asian to Washington Avenue

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

Hiro, the Japanese izakaya and sushi restaurant in The Loop, will be closing in mid-November. Owner Bernie Lee opened Hiro in August 2011 at 609 Eastgate Ave., but the building has since been purchased by Washington University and is scheduled to be demolished as part of an $80 million project to build a multi-story complex of apartments and commercial buildings. However, Hiro won’t be gone for long. Lee is taking Hiro downtown to Washington Avenue where it will be called Hiro Pan-Asian Restaurant & Lounge. Lee declined to give the exact address but noted that he had already signed the lease on the space.

The focus at Hiro Pan-Asian, explained Lee, will not be on sushi and izakaya as it currently is in The Loop. Rather, the lunch, dinner and late-night restaurant will serve Asian fusion. Some menu items from the current menu, such as pork buns (pictured), will make the Hiro 2.0 menu, but patrons will also be able to dine on dim sum and select from numerous pan-Asian vegetarian and gluten-free options. Beverages will include both local and global beer selections, wine, cocktails and teas. Lee stated that the restaurant will open sometime this winter, with a pan-Asian Sunday brunch coming in the spring.

Drink This Weekend Edition: Asian elements bring cohesion to cocktails at Hiro

Friday, September 9th, 2011

090911_drinkthisweekendMany restaurants and bars have jumped aboard the craft cocktail bandwagon. And while I will be the first to applaud artisanal spirits, house-made infusions, bitters, mixers and fresh – even locally grown – produce, there are times when mixed-drink menus feel disjointed, be it a lack of harmony among cocktails with the food offerings or with the restaurant’s overall concept. Not so at Hiro, the newly opened sushi and izakaya (Japanese tapas) restaurant located at 609 Eastgate Ave., in The Loop, where bar manager Sui Toh does a nice job of unifying the cocktail list through a knowledgeable selection of Asian components.

Think Japanese alcoholic beverages and the first one that comes to mind is saké. At Hiro, patrons have a choice of four different sakés, but the rice wine also makes an appearance in five cocktails. They run from basic, like the 50/50 (equal parts plum wine and saké), to more complex, like the Ginger Phoenix (a mix of saké, Moscato, muddled ginger and simple syrup garnished with a tasty, don’t-waste-it piece of house-made candied ginger).

The use of fruit waters is another notable aspect of the drinks prepared at Hiro. The coconut Mojito calls for coconut water, which keeps the drink light and refreshing, as well as lime juice and a generous amount of fresh mint, which keep it from wandering too far from its inspiration. The Lychee Blossom employs a combination of coconut water and lychee water that’s garnished with skewered lychee fruit, giving imbibers unfamiliar with its gummy ways an up-close-and-personal experience with the tropical Asian fruit.

Toh and owner Bernie Lee clearly understand their customer base (folks with a penchant for commercially made flavored vodkas won’t be disappointed), but they also seem to recognize that, as an Asian eatery, Hiro is in a position to enhance its drinks with Pac Rim elements – and they’re not afraid to do so.

The Scoop: Hiro to open next to 609 Lounge next month

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

062911_sakeAs first noticed by Riverfront Times’ food blog Gut Check, the space at 609 Eastgate Ave., in The Loop will soon be home to Hiro, a sushi and modern Japanese izakaya restaurant. The space, which sits next to 609 Lounge, was recently vacated when Blue Ocean Sushi moved to the former Seki space on Delmar Boulevard.

Bernie Lee, who owns 609 Lounge and Hiro, hopes to open the doors to his new Japanese eatery in mid-July. As we revealed when Izakaya Ren opened in Valley Park earlier this year, the Japanese word “izakaya” translates to “sake house with small plates.” Lee confirmed that small plates and sake will both be part of the menu at Hiro, which he likens to a Japanese tapas bar.

According to Lee, the sushi at Hiro will be rolled by the former chef of another local sushi restaurant, while the izakaya-style small plates will be prepared by Andy Wong, the former chef at 609 Asian Fusion (the restaurant which occupied the space before Blue Ocean did). In addition to the small plates, the menu will feature a slew of Japanese selections, including classic sashimi and sushi rolls as well as cooked rolls – items more for the meat-lover like teriyaki chicken rolls and even a Crunchy Pig roll, complete with bacon and roasted pork belly. In addition to sake, wine will be available by the bottle and the glass, and a list of cocktails and non-alcoholic mocktails will also be offered. Lee is keeping the price point low, with small plates ranging between $3 and $10 and no bottle of wine topping $35.

Opening date is tentatively scheduled for mid-July, after a facelift and some changes to the décor of the space are completed. Once the restaurant is up and running, Lee plans to transform the restaurant into a noodle house on Friday and Saturday nights after 11:30 p.m., giving Loop patrons a new late-night dining option. Other programs such as happy hours and dollar sushi night will also be rolled out. When the doors do open, Hiro will be open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday and dinner only on Saturday and Sunday.

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