Gyudon, literally beef on rice, served in a bowl, is a staple of Japanese fast food. Yoshinoya, often called the “Japanese McDonalds” (I just made that up) has been around 1899, which makes it older than powered flight, but not Nintendo.
The enduring popularity of gyudon can be explained for much the same reasons as hamburgers: a fast, cheap, and somewhat enjoyable way of getting some carbs (bread or rice) and protein (beef).
Gyudon isn’t the hardest dish to make yourself, but with all the choice, why bother? The three big chains are Yoshinoya, Matsuya, and Sukiya, the latter two being relative newcomers. All offer basic gyudon and Japanese curry (which took a rather convoluted route to get here, but that’s a story for another article).
Here’s the lowdown on how they differ:
Yoshinoya is the oldest chain and has the simplest menu. Yoshigyu is the only one of those affectionate Japanese nicknames, and is always a safe bet. Their gyudon uses American beef, which tastes a bit different to that from Australia (really). Yoshinoya’s gyudon is probably the soupiest by default, and you can make it even soupier by saying a magic word when you order (see the secret menu!)
Matsuya sells “gyumeshi”, and has the most extensive menu by far, with various meaty dishes on offer. The user interface is also an improvement from an English speaker’s point of view, in that you order what you like from a vending machine with bilingual labels, instead of pointing out what you’d like to eat in a book.
Matsuya’s gyumeshi is the cheapest of the bunch, if you can avoid the branches that have their dreaded and more expensive “premium” gyudon, and has less of a “wet” component than Yoshinoya’s. My favorite dish from Matsuya has to be their gyuyakiniku (BBQ beef) meal. The “W” (Japanese for double, like G pants for jeans) version of it has half a cow neatly sliced up and grilled, then served with a massive bowl of rice and a bunch of other stuff that isn’t important. The beef is a lot more substantial than that used in the gyudon, and not a bad deal for the price. Recommended!
Sukiya is notable for having both the most stores and lots and lots of different varieties of gyudon, with sizes ranging from smallest to largest: puchi (tiny), mini, standard, 1.5x meat, big, extra-big, mega, and king.
If you make a habit of eating The King, you’ll be looking more like like “fat Elvis” than “Blue Hawaii Elvis”. There is a lot of rice, but the main attraction is the massive pile of meat and onions, six times as much as on the standard-sized bowl.
I plowed through mine in the name of science. Plowed and shoveled; chopsticks did the trick, but a shovel would have been better. To a 100 kilo Maori, half a kilo of Australian and 600 grams of rice is basically a light snack, so in 10 minutes, I was done.
You might think it would just taste like a bigger bowl of gyudon, but at this scale it’s different. A few mouthfuls in, and the massive amount of salt in the dish started punishing my mouth. It was an odd feeling actually, the action of swallowing was the hard part, not holding it in. I would write more erotic gyudon non-fiction, but the point is, it’s an experience!
The verdict? Like buying an iPad, it was certainly fun, but not something I would be in a rush to do again. If you have a burning desire to see if you could sustain yourself entirely on gyudon like some kind of perverse hybrid car, then ask for it by name!
The Gyudon shortage:
Yoshinoya completely stopped selling gyudon following the discovery of mad cow disease in beef imported from America in 2004. For a period of four years, Yoshinoya sold beef products only intermittently, instead swapping beef for pork, while Matsuya and Sukiya switched to Chinese and Australian beef for a period and permanently, respectively.
This was to Sukiya’s benefit (how often have you heard someone say “Gee, I really feel like a butadon right now?”), and they dethroned Yoshinoya as the top chain in 2008. Since then, Gyudon, unlike it’s cousin that starts with an M and ends with an cDonalds has managed to avoid poisoning enough people to warrant media attention.
Ancient Japanese Secrets:
Aside from the tiny and massive sizes at Sukiya, you can try the following when you order:
Tsuyudaku: If you’d like a bowl with more broth, this is the thing to say.
Tsuyudakudaku: If you’d like a bowl with MORE DAMN BROTH, this is the magic word.
Tsuyunuki: For those who don’t want any brother.
Negidaku: More spring onions
Neginuki: No spring onions. You may have noticed a pattern…
There’s no secret gyudon equivalent of the legendary McGangbang yet, but I trust Japan will get there some day. We can only hope.
並盛 Namimori, medium portion
頭の大盛 Atama no oomori, big portioned head, extra meat but not extra rice. An actual menu item at Yoshinoya!
大盛 Oomori, big size
特盛 Tokumori, extra-big size.
A raw egg (生卵, namatamago) is a common addition to a bowl of gyudon. Mix it up using your chopsticks in the provided bowl, and pour it over your bowl. Soft boiled eggs (半熟卵, hanjukutamago) are also available if you prefer your eggs cooked.
Red pickled ginger (紅生姜, benishoga) is a free garnish. The ginger cuts through the greasiness of the meaty dish like a knife!
What Japanese food would you like me to eat next?