Gyudon (beef bowls) and where to eat them
Gyudon (牛丼) is a popular Japanese dish that literally translates as beef bowl. Gyuu is the prefix for anything to do with cows i.e. beef, and don is short for donburi, which is the Japanese word for "bowl". The dish consists of rice topped with thinly sliced beef and onions that have been cooked in a sweet sauce.
There are three large fast food gyudon chains across Japan and we’ve sampled them all. Here we review them in the order that we tried them!
Much like the majority of eateries in Japan your meal in these venues is presented on a small tray and unlimited chilled water is already on the table/counter along with an array of sauces. The meal is presented to you within minutes of ordering and is to be enjoyed quickly and efficiently so that the moment you finish eating your seat can be taken by another diner.
Yoshinoya is the largest of the gyudon chains in Japan and even has some branches outside of Japan in places like Hong Kong and Singapore. We first sampled Yoshinoya on our first trip to Japan together when our language skills were very limited and our appetite for entering restaurants that didn’t sell a food we recognised was low. We’d been wandering around Shimbashi for some time, dismissing many restaurants, and forced ourselves to enter the next one we saw which was a branch of Yoshinoya.
In this branch we were ushered upstairs and sat at the counter, we were able to order from a menu with pictures and both went for a regular size bowl. Mild panic set in at this point because we didn't even know what kind of meat it was as it doesn't look much like the beef to the western eye!
The food arrived quickly and bowl was huge and very hot and so we struggled to eat it. The beef was mediocre and we left feeling somewhat unsatisfied with our meal, it's fair to say that our taste in Japanese food has changed a lot since then and I think we've probably given Yoshinoya a bit of a hard time due to our inexperienced palates so we will try it again next time!
Price: ¥300 for their regular gyudon and ¥60 for miso soup
Our rating: 3/5 (do take into account our inexperienced palates!)
Sukiya is another popular gydon chain in Japan with around 1800 outlets, it also has offerings in countries including Brazil, Malaysia and China. The branch we ate at was in Meguro and ordering was done via a machine near the entrance where you select your bowl, size and any extras, pay and then receive a token to be passed to the staff when you are seated. We sat at the counter, handed our tokens over and the food arrived in minutes.
It’s very popular to top your beef bowl with a raw egg although us westerners struggle to get our heads around this concept. The egg comes in it’s shell and you can crack it into a little bowl, whisk with your chopsticks and then pour over your beef. I had a regular premium bowl and Tom had the same topped with with a side of egg and miso soup, Tom didn’t really enjoy it at all because of the runny egg but my meal was very good topped with a lot of ponzu (a dark brown, citrus sauce) and the beef was incredibly tasty.
Price: ¥250 for their gyudon and ¥100 for the additional miso soup and egg set
Our (Clare’s) rating: 4/5
Matsuya is a smaller chain than the other two but there are still around 1000 branches in Japan and also some in Shanghai and New York.
The outlets look like this from the outside:
Just like Sukiya we used a token machine to order selecting the bowl choice, size and any additional toppings or extras.
I had the premium bowl:
Tom had similar but topped with green onions and also a side of Japanese salad.
There are many different sauces to choose from to complete your meal and I went for ponzo again.
Both of our meals were tasty and very filling, we only had the medium size but it was plenty and this is definitely our favourite of the three chains. I think the portions are slightly smaller than at the other two but the beef is just so full of flavour and the perfect texture. The ponzo sauce here is mouthwatering and I still dream about it!
Price: ¥290 for the beef bowl and miso soup. If you did want to top with the dreaded egg it’s an extra ¥60
Rating: 5/5 we will definitely be back!