Aurora's Havana Street is awash with some of the most diverse ethnic cuisine in the Denver metro area; the cultural landscape is primed with every kind of experience, from fine-ish dining to lovable dives to mom and pop eateries from almost every nationality and culture: Ethiopian, Vietnamese pho, dollar-a-scoop Chinese, Mexican seafood, Cuban bakeries, and barbecue startup trucks. This stretch of semi-urban street makes for some colorful dining, so I'll be giving you my fitty-cent tour every week, complete with all the color, flavor and commentary of my ‘hood.
What sort of Asian buffet charges $8.99 a person for all the sushi, cold peel-and-eat shrimp, mussels, tempura-dipped fried things and mango mousse layer cake you can eat at lunchtime? A buffet with a really smart proprietor like Sunny Lin, owner of Hiro Japanese Buffet. Hiro opened a year and a half ago and was relatively unknown at first, but Lin says word of mouth has propelled the restaurant (“People were telling other people about it,” she says) into an Aurora buffet gem that's no longer so hidden.
As you pass through the decorative dragon-carved pillars outside into the cavernous dining room, the aromas of roasted meats and rich sauces positively intoxicate. Even on a lazy weekday afternoon, the space has fairly high traffic; the reason for the crowd is spread out over six rows of bright stainless-steel buffet tables with hot bars, cold bars, a full sushi bar and a dessert area. The atmosphere is so stereotypically textbook-Asian-restaurant, it’s almost funny, with gilded fans, geisha statuettes and muted grey walls enclosing rows of polished wood tables and cozy booths. But this is a place that urges you to make the rounds of the buffet tables rather than ponder the decor or listen to the elevator music.
The first buffet row is overflowing with appetizers and soups: Piles of tempura-fried sweet-potato slices, broccoli florets and green beans next to a vat of particularly mushroom-laden hot-and-sour soup make the first round easy. Mounds of egg rolls, ubiquitous but lovable crab-cheese wontons and sesame balls beckon, but the second hot table behind it holds the money dishes: skewers of plump teriyaki chicken next to honey chicken wings next to baked mussels and broiled salmon fillets sprinkled with sesame seeds. This is one of those buffets where making it to the end in one visit is out of the question but getting your money’s worth while trying is not a problem.
The next row features lo mein noodles, fried and white rice, orange chicken, black-pepper beef, and calamari with peppers. But filling up here would be a mistake, unless you save room for the next row of cold seafood dishes. Chilled peel-and-eat shrimp and cold mussels in a light soy broth keep the regulars coming back. The salads were the only meager point of the spread, with a row of boring bowls filled with lettuce leaves, canned pears, jello cubes and that weird salad with the cut-up bananas in red jello-liquid that exists for no good reason.
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The sushi bar also deserves an extra trip. Standard buffets have conditioned me to expect makeshift, afterthought California rolls and lackluster spicy-tuna rolls, but Hiro does buffet sushi the smart way — by having an above-average variety of quality rolls, like three choices of salmon and four of tuna, plus shrimp, crab, red snapper and assorted veggie and pickle rolls.
Typical Asian buffet desserts tend to include tasty little cake squares in day-glo colors and tropical flavors; the mango mousse layer cake here is sweet, spongy and light.
Other than the slightly chewy calamari, everything I sampled was fantastic to the point that I regret not having found Hiro sooner. Admittedly, Asian buffets in the Denver metro area can be hit-or-miss, so it's gratifying to find a keeper. Lin informed me that the weekend buffet ups the ante (and the price) with sashimi, crab legs and oysters — all smart moves to fill the dining room. I was convinced after one visit that making Hiro my go-to Asian buffet would be the smartest move of all.