We’re in Tokyo. A Japanese salaryman sits at his computer. Everyone has gone home for the night, and the lamp on his desk illuminates him as he leans back and stretches his hands above his head.
Exhausted from yet another 12-hour workday, he sulks out of the building and down the sidewalk toward the train station. Just as he’s approaching the station entrance and feeling for his wallet to scan his commuter pass, he catches the light of a sign just over his shoulder.
“Matsuya,” says blue Japanese letters on an orange and yellow sign. “Open 24 hours.”
A gyudon shop.
He realizes how hungry he is. A bowl of beef and rice before his 2-hour ride home would be nice.
He enters the restaurant and makes for the ticket vending machine. He slides 350 yen’s worth of coins into the slot (a cheap dinner, he must say), pushes the “Gyu-meshi” button, and a ticket slides out.
An attendant stands at attention as he sits down at one of the red stools along a counter.
“Oomori,” he says to the attendent, meaning an extra scoop of rice.
The attendant takes his ticket, and off she goes to prepare his meal.
Not 2 minutes pass before his beef bowl arrives with a side of miso soup.
He grabs a pair of chopsticks from the small drawer on the table. He also sprinkles on some cayenne pepper from a container next to the chopsticks drawer. It’s a simple concept to this place. You eat, and you get out. No frills or bells and whistles. Everything on offer is right in front of you. And because of the ticket machine, it’s possible to not say a single word from the moment you enter until you leave.
The salaryman finishes his meal and lays his chopsticks down over the bowl.
“Gochisou-sama deshita,” he says as a thanks for the meal.
He stands and walks back out the door toward the station. It’ll be another long ride home, but at least now he’s got a bellyful of hot beef.
Gyudon comes from the Japanese words “gyuu” (“beef”) and “donburi” (“bowl”). Put them together, and you’ve got “beef bowl.” But we wouldn’t just stop there. The bowl is filled with rice, and the beef is lain on top of it. This is what the Japanese refer to as “donburi,” which is a bowl of rice with something over top of it.
The beef in gyudon is cooked with onions and simmered with fish and seaweed stock, soy sauce, and mirin to give it its signature flavor. It can be served with any and all of the following: pickled ginger, ground chili pepper, a raw or poached egg, and a side dish of miso soup.
Gyudon originally came about in the Meiji Restoration period, at a time when western influences were pervading the country, and one of these influences was the adoption of beef into the Japanese diet. The modern version of gyudon widely available today is derived from Sukiyaki-don and gyuu-nabe, where thin strips of beef were cooked along with vegetables and later served in a bowl over rice.
The Kanto region in 1862 was the first to popularize the dish as we know it today, and it was here that the first Yoshinoya gyudon shop was opened in 1899.
From 1912-1926, gyudon purveyors began buying cheaper beef and selling the bowls from small stands on street corners. This decreased the cost of making the dish and in turn made it more widely available.
These days, gyudon is more commonly a type of Japanese fast food. The most popular chain restaurants are Yoshinoya, Matsuya, and Sukiya. My personal favorite of the 3 is Sukiya, so I’m going to introduce this restaurant and talk about the different kinds of gyudon and other menu items you can expect during your visit.
Sukiya is a gyudon chain restaurant in Japan. It has 2,000 domestic locations littered throughout the country and several others abroad in such countries as China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Brazil, and Mexico. According to the Tokyo Stock Exchange, its sales hit ￥511 billion in 2016. Within Japan, all stores are generally open 24 hours.
Sukiya first opened its doors in 1982 as a place selling “lunch box sets.” Due to its popularity, the same year a secondary restaurant was opened in Yokohama city as the chain’s first gyudon eat-in restaurant. Even today, the gyudon bowls have “Yokohama” written on them and are decorated with paintings of buildings representative of the city.
The name “Sukiya” derives from the Japanese words “suki” (“like”) and “ya” (“house”). The founders named it this because they wanted customers to feel that their gyudon shop was their favorite of all others. The name also resembles the famous Japanese food suki-yaki, which further cemented the brand into the public mind. Today, all shops are run by regional Sukiya family subsidiaries, and there are no franchises.
Unlike other gyudon chains like Yoshinoya, Sukiya focuses their customer base less on city-centers and those entering and exiting train stations and more on clientele that drive in cars in suburban areas and along highways. Recently, Sukiya has taken a foothold in shopping mall food courts, and stand-alone restaurants have added drive-thus, making it more of the McDonald’s variety of fast gyudon.
Of all gyudon restaurants in Japan, I believe this to be the best by far. The interior has more of a welcoming restaurant-like feel than Yoshinoya or Matsuya. In the latter 2, like in the story of our salaryman, they’re more eat-and-go places, where they cram as many people into one space as possible. Sukiya is much more spacious and friendly. There’s no ticket vending machine; a wait staff takes your order from the menu as you sit down. You also have a choice of whether to sit at a normal table with chairs, or at the barstools at the counter. When you want to call the wait staff over, you hit a button that goes “ping-pong!” just like at casual Japanese restaurants. On top of the general restaurant-like atmosphere, there’s also much more included in the menu than just 3 or 4 varieties of gyudon.
As a precursor, all menu items are subject to change, and some are only available during certain seasons. Also, all items come with a complimentary glass of iced barley tea (mugi-cha), and other drinks are ordered separately. (They even serve beer!)
With each order, you’ll have to choose the amount of rice you want. In ascending order, sizes include:
- Regular (nami-mori)
- Regular with more meat, less rice (chuu-mori)
- Large (oo-mori)
- X-Large (toku-mori)
Most customers are satisfied with the regular size, but some really like their rice and need tons of it. If you really want to pack on the calories, there’s a new curry menu item that just came out with beef, cheese, and egg. The MEGA size is 1,700 calories. Just remember to dial 119 if your heart stops beating.
- Curry Nanban Gyudon (new limited time)
A brand new item just popped up as I was writing this! Bonito and konbu seaweed create the base of this thick curry, which is ladled over gyudon. The name “Nanban” hearkens back to an ancient indigenous people of China, but here it refers to a method of cooking using negi (leeks) and chili peppers.
Here you go! Gyudon in its simplest, unadulterated form. I recommend this if you just want to try “the gyudon,” or if you’re looking to save some money (it’s the cheapest on the menu).
- Negi And Kimchi Gyudon
Some people are averse to the smell of kimchi and how spicy it is, but, coming from the US, I don’t think it’s too smelly or spicy in the slightest! Combine this with negi and you’ve got yourself a colorful topping to your beef bowl with an added punch.
- Negi And Egg Yolk Gyudon
Yes, the egg is raw! Don’t worry, though, I’ve been eating raw eggs in Japan for 10 years, and I’ve never even gotten a stomachache. With the Negi and Egg Yolk Gyudon, a little preparation goes in before you eat. The wait staff will give you a raw egg, yolk separator, and separate cup to discard the shell and egg whites in. You lay the yolk separator over the cup, crack the egg, drop the yolk into the center, and let the whites run into the cup while the yolk stays in the yolk holder. You then drop the egg yolk onto the gyudon, and you’re ready to eat! This dish also has a slightly spicy sauce added, but, again, I don’t think it’s that spicy!
- Three-cheese Gyudon
This one is my favorite. If you love cheese, then you’re hard-pressed finding a dish that doesn’t go well with it. Gyudon is no exception! While the calorie count may be a bit higher on this one, I wouldn’t let that deter you. Go for it!
- Grated Daikon And Pon-zu Gyudon
This is about as Japanese as it gets! Daikon is a big white Japanese radish with about the same zest as a red radish. Pon-zu is a kind of tart citrus fruit based vinegar. Eaten together in this dish is a light and refreshing alternative to other menu items.
- Takana And Mentai Mayonnaise Gyudon
I’m not a huge fan of mayonnaise in such large quantities, but apparently a substantial amount of Japanese are. According to the website, this topping wasn’t even on the menu until a significant number of customers requested it. Now it’s part of the official menu, and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon! Takana is a dark green vegetable that is pickled, and mentai is small spicy fish eggs. Here, the fish eggs are mixed with mayonnaise and slathered over the top of the takana and gyudon. As I said, a bit much for me, but, yes, Japan!
- Yama-kake And Wasabi Gyudon
I’m not really sure how to translate this. Yama means “mountain” and kake means “on”, so, what, “mountain on?” “Mountaintop?” I guess they call it yama-kake because the slimy white potato grating kind of looks like the snowy top of a mountain? Your guess is as good as mine. It looks like there’s some wasabi at the top of this mountain as well. Again, not as appealing to my western eyes as the cheese gyudon, but, hey, what country are we in again?
- Katsuo-bushi And Okra Gyudon
Get used to katsuo-bushi (dried bonito flakes) in Japanese cuisine. You’ll see it a lot. And the cool thing about these dried flakes is that they move when they’re hot. That’s right: order this dish, and your food will look like it’s alive! Another thing to note: Japanese okra is slimy, so if you’re not into the slime thing, I would avoid okra.
- Gyudon Light
And for those of you looking to slim down to the Japanese stick figure size, there’s a low-calorie option. At 350 calories for the regular size, you’ll burn off lunch in just a few hours! The rice at the bottom of the bowl is replaced by a cube of tofu, so it’s good for those on low-carb diets as well.
- A limited time offering in the summer, unagi (eel) is a stamina-enhancing fish that gives hungry customers that extra oomph to barrel through the sweaty summer months. In more traditional Japanese restaurants, unagi is a delicacy with the price to match it, running in at about 2,000 yen per serving. The Sukiya version is much cheaper than that but is still one of the more expensive things on the menu at 780 yen for the regular size. Even despite its cheap price, I still prefer the Sukiya unagi over the more expensive variety for one reason: bone content. If there’s one thing that spoils delicious fish, it’s having to pick tiny bones out so you don’t choke to death. At more expensive Japanese restaurants, the unagi is around 40% meat and 60% bone at double the price of Sukiya. However, the Sukiya version has virtually no bones (at least that I’ve detected), so the choice is a no-brainer!
- Instead of beef over rice, there is also a pork version. This variety came into use about 10 years ago during the mad cow disease scare. Beef imports were limited, so as an alternative, gyudon chains started offering ton-don. The ton-don used to be cheaper and have less calories than the regular gyudon, but looking at the menu now, it’s the same price, and the ton-don has about 50 more calories for the regular size.
-Curry And Rice
- Gyudon Cheese On-tama Curry (new limited time)
This is the high-calorie item I mentioned above that was just added. I might try it just to say I did!
- Pork Curry
The standard Japanese brown curry with pork shavings, potato, carrot, and a handful of pickled vegetables.
- Gyudon Curry
Can’t decide whether you want gyudon or curry? With this dish you can have both!
- Ton-don Curry
The pork version of #3.
- Cheese Curry
You know you can’t resist your cheese craving. Do it!
- On-tama Curry
This is basically the pork curry with an added egg. This egg is cooked 2/3 of the way, where the yolk is hard but the white is still soft. It’s called an onsen tamago, which refers to the traditional way of cooking it in a hot spring. Onsen tamago is colloquially shortened to on-tama and is what we would call a poached egg.
- On-tama Gyudon Curry
Number 3 with an added on-tama. Unfortunately, the pork version didn’t make the official menu :'(
- Karaage Curry (limited time)
And last, but not least, if you wanna say screw all this pork and beef nonsense and throw some fried chicken balls in there instead, you have that option!
This is the miscellaneous part of the menu that’s not advertised very well (it’s usually on the back of of the menu near the kid’s food). It’s like there was a deep discount sale somewhere, and Sukiya just bought up whatever they could and threw it in a bowl with some rice and other random stuff. I’ve never tried anything from the miscellaneous menu, but I’m sure there’s a hidden gem somewhere in there that some high schooler swears by.
- Pacific Saury (Autumn Season Limited Time Only)
Sanma is a common fish eaten in Japan. Here, it’s available grilled and over slivers of nori (dried laver seaweed) and rice. Other additions on the menu are sanma with gyudon and sanma with gyudon, negi, and a raw egg yolk. Although I like sanma, I don’t recommend it for the same reason I don’t recommend 2,000-yen unagi: bones! I’ve never tried the sanma at Sukiya before, but if they’ve somehow found a way to de-bone it, I’d say go for it if you like fish.
- Blue-fin Tuna
Tekka-donburi: This is kind of like sushi, except the rice isn’t packed into balls. It’s sashimi slices laid out over rice in a bowl. It’s also available with that yama-kake and wasabi topping I mentioned earlier. This sounds good enough, but I would save the sashimi experience for sashimi restaurants, as those would probably be better.
- Minced Tuna Bowl
With this bowl, the tuna is minced and served up softly over rice. If you’re a sushi fanatic, you might be reminded of negi-toro, which has a similar consistency.
- Tuna Yukke Bowl
Asian fusion, anyone? This is #3 with an added raw egg yolk and spicy Korean yukke sauce to give this Japanese dish a Gangnam Style flair.
- Chicken And Fish Powder Bowl
Well, that’s what my translator says, anyway! Minced chicken, bonito, and konbu seaweed combine to make this odd concoction, which is topped off with yet another raw egg yolk. Why always the cholesterol-laden part of the egg, you ask? I’m gonna take a wild guess and say it has something to do with the (land of the rising) sun, but you’re free to debate this to your heart’s content in the comments section.
- Low-Carb Beef And Noodles
Looks like the low-carb dieters can mop their brows. You have options at Sukiya, and those options extend to discarding the whole meat-and-rice deal altogether for a bowl of hot (or cold) noodles. “A low-carb meal with noodles,” you might say? The answer is yes. The noodles are made from konnyaku, which is an almost zero-calorie, high-fiber gelatin cut into thin strips to resemble noodles. Bon appetit!
-A Japanese-style Set Meal
When I travel, I like to do as the Romans do, or in this case, eat as the Japanese do. Back home in the US, my mom used to set meat, vegetables, and bread out on one plate for dinner. The Japanese use many more dishes with each portion usually having its own plate—making doing the dishes sound like a big pain in the you-know-what. At Sukiya, I used to order the Salmon with Pork Soup And Natto set (Ton-jiru sake natto teishoku). This included a few sheets of nori, a small cup of pickled vegetables, a bowl of rice, and a raw egg. The natto (fermented soybeans) and raw egg are an acquired taste to say the least, but there are other options without them. You can also opt for gyudon beef instead of salmon and miso soup instead of the pork soup.
If a bowl of Chicken and Fish Powder isn’t enough for you, you have the option of making it, or any other menu item, a value meal ( or “set” in Japanese) for an additional fee. At McDonald’s that might mean fries and a drink, but Sukiya does it the Japanese way. Here are a few “sets” you can choose from (soups include your choice of miso, pork, or miso and basket clams):
- Oshinko set
Soup and pickled vegetables (added raw egg option also available). This is one of the cheapest and most standard.
- Egg set
Soup and a raw egg.
- Salad set
Soup and salad. The basic salads tend to be small and lacking in color in Japan, but there are potato salad and okra salad set options for those looking for some added flavor.
- Healthy set
Soup, a block of tofu, and hijiki seaweed. I highly recommend this one. There’s nothing like a cold belly of tofu.
With a better understanding of gyudon’s significance in Japanese cuisine and the menu of one of its most popular chain restaurants, Suki-ya, you are now fully equipped to hit up your nearest shop and start ordering away. As the Japanese say before meals “Itdadakimasu!”