Food meets anime in a mash-up of influences at new South Side restaurant Chef Hiro.
Owner Jean Claude Ba opened the eatery earlier this summer at 1297 Parsons Ave. The address has seen an eclectic mix of restaurants over the years, from storied vegan eatery Hal & Al’s, to Tatoheads Public House, then back to vegan with Village Taco, before Ba took it over as the brick-and-mortar evolution of Chef Hiro.
It’s a new phase for the chef, who has grown the brand from side-gig run out of his apartment to food truck and now, stand alone brick-and-mortar.
It all started with a social media post. Ba shared a meal he made himself and had a few friends comment asking if he could make some for them as well. He decided he’d try it out, making enough food to feed the 80 plus people who had commented they were interested in a meal. When the time came to eat, only seven people showed up. Ba said not again. The next time he took deposits for meals and sold about 20.
From then on, Ba started making and selling meals out of his apartment every Sunday, on his day off from his full-time job at the Post Office. There wasn’t much of a plan initially. Chef Hiro was more of a side-hustle, but Ba started to teach himself how to cook more recipes, learned more about running a business, and after saving up for a year, bought his first food truck in 2019.
“Then it kind of just took off with the truck,” Ba says. It made him realize, “this might be more than a side hustle, this might be an actual business.”
After his first successful season, Ba was gearing up for round two when the world shut down. Unable to get the license he needed for the truck because of the pandemic, Ba got creative.
On his route for the Post Office, he found a bar that had closed, and asked the owner if he could lease out the kitchen. As of July 2020, Chef Hiro started filling online orders through social media at 894 W. Broad St. With more space, he could expand the menu, which expanded the profits. The first month went exceedingly well. Then the second, and by the third, Ba quit his full-time job.
The success of the pandemic pop-up encouraged the brick-and-mortar, but it wasn’t a straight line to get there. He first tried to take over the Broad Street address, but would cede that battle to the relocated Josie’s Pizza.
Ba spent the next year looking for a loan and a property to build a permanent home for Chef Hiro. He searched vacant restaurant spaces across the city, and as a new restaurant, was denied a loan by no fewer than a dozen banks. When Ba finally did receive an SBA loan through Telhio Credit Union, with the difficulty he’d had finding a piece of real estate, he used part of the funding to buy a bigger, better food truck.
Then he saw the Parsons Avenue space. After working out a deal with the landlord and pulling together the remaining loan funds, it was time for Chef Hiro to put down roots.
As a self-taught chef, Ba describes his menu as random. There is a regular lineup of tacos, burritos and rice bowls, built around his signature cranberry, red bean and rice mix and custom blend, jerk-spiced proteins. Ba says the rice mix is a little sweet, and the proteins spicy, making for the perfect balance. Chicken, steak, salmon, shrimp and more get the jerk treatment, with tomatoes, cilantro, cheese and HIRO sauce are frequent accompaniments for each format. While there are many options, Ba says the tacos are a can’t miss.
Where the randomness really shines is chef special Sundays. Sundays are for creative dishes like oxtail pizza, beef bacon grilled cheese or stuffed turkey legs.
The menu rounds out with a full bar serving up beer, wine and specialty cocktails.
The anime comes in the ambiance. It’s on the walls in mural form and playing on the TVs that hang in the dining room. When Ba was teaching himself to cook, he’d often have anime on in the background, so he wrapped it into the inspiration for the restaurant.
Ba’s Chef Hiro has developed a loyal following that’s led to a welcome reception at the new location.
“One thing I’m glad I did was document this journey, from cooking out of the apartment until now and a lot of people have been following me since the apartment,” he says.
The food truck still makes the occasional appearance for large festivals and private bookings, but fans can now find their Chef Hiro fix seven days a week.
The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. Tuesday (because Taco Tuesday), 11 a.m. – midnight Friday and Saturday and 12 – 6 p.m. Sunday.
For more information, visit chefhiro.com.
All photos by Susan Post