We investigate whether NEXT MEATS meatless karubi and harami make for a satisfying and delicious yakiniku dinner.

Many vegetarian and vegan eaters must be overjoyed to know that more and more plant-based options have become available in Tokyo eateries in recent years. With whole restaurants and convenience stores dedicated to meatless fare and even standard meat and fish-filled foods like burgers, sushi, and ramen being offered in vegetarian versions, it’s much easier than ever to go meat-free in Japan.

One new kind of meat substitute that was surprising to us is meatless yakiniku from startup company NEXT MEATS. Yakiniku literally means “grilled meat” in Japanese, so it sounds like it would be rather difficult to substitute real meat with a plant-based alternative. Luckily there’s a Shibuya yakiniku shop that just started offering NEXT MEATS meatless yakiniku in-restaurant, so we had to go try it out. How does it compare to real yakiniku in flavor, satisfaction, and price? Let’s investigate.

The restaurant we visited is the Shibuya Utagawamachi branch of Yakiniku Like. They offer the two kinds of meatless yakiniku that NEXT MEATS sells: harami (skirt steak) and karubi (short ribs). Both come in 50 gram portions for 290 (US$2.77) and 310 yen respectively, but right now, until the 31st, if you order one of the yakiniku sets, you’ll get a free sampling to try out.

We, however, were on a mission to eat meatless meat, so we had resolved not to eat any real meat on this visit. Our reasoning was that, if the NEXT Karubi and NEXT Harami really do resemble real yakiniku meat, then we should be able to say with confidence after a meal of it that felt like we’d eaten yakiniku. And if not, well then you can safely conclude that it does not live up to expectations as a suitable meat substitute for yakinuku.

Yakiniku Like has customers place their orders using an iPad system, but it was actually kind of hard to find the meatless options. We had to go all the way to the third tab of the Campaign Menu, and then swipe to the left to see it. We’re not sure if it was intentional or not, but it felt like they were making the meatless yakiniku a secret menu item.

Not knowing what the right amount to order would be, we started out by ordering three sets each of the NEXT Karubi and the NEXT Harami, plus a large size rice and an Oolong tea, which was pretty much everything we would order at yakiniku, just with meatless meat.

Then, before long, our NEXT Karubi and NEXT Harami arrived!

Naturally, when ordering regular yakiniku, the meat always comes raw so that you can grill it to perfection, but the meat substitute yakiniku looked like meat that was cooked already. When it arrived, the server told us which was which, but within minutes we had totally forgotten. But we had remembered to ask the server to show us the packaging so we could look at the ingredients, and it looked like they’re both made of the same things, so it probably didn’t matter.

But….what were we supposed to do with this meatless meat? It’s made of soybeans so it probably wouldn’t have mattered whether we cooked them or not. “Um, excuse me…do we grill these?” we asked the server, with visible confusion on our faces. Apparently the answer is yes, you do grill them, but only really to warm them up before eating them.

Alrighty then. We fired up the grill and gave it a whirl.

Actually, the process felt the same. It really seemed like we were cooking regular meat yakiniku, so we had to remind ourselves that it was meatless. That was kind of mysterious. The “meat” even got a nice char from the fire, so honestly, if we hadn’t known it was plant-based meat, at this point we would never have realized.

But once it cooled and we took a good look at it, it was clear that it was neither pork nor beef. It didn’t even look like chicken, really. If anything, it looked closest to the giant chunk of tuna that you can find in a tuna can sometimes.

Even so, no one around you is going to see you cooking it and notice that it’s vegan meat, so if you’re worried about people laughing at you, don’t be. It just looks like you’re grilling meaty yakiniku like everyone else.

As for the flavor, both varieties had a salty-sweet flavor to them that didn’t taste much like meat. Wondering what it would taste like with standard yakiniku sauces, we decided to dip it in and give it a taste…

It tasted just like regular yakiniku!!

It was surprising how meaty it tasted. Charring it slightly to give it the fire-grilled flavor we know and love from yakiniku makes it even meatier. You don’t get even a little bit of the soy flavor with the combination of grill and sauce.

It does lack the fattiness and oiliness of meat (naturally, since it’s made of soybeans), and it does tend to be a little bit crumbly, like ground meat, but the look, smell, and flavor are all very meaty. We really believe that if someone grilled it up for you without telling you it wasn’t meat, you would never know.

By the way, once you’ve applied sauce to both the harami and the karubi it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart. It seems there really isn’t much of a difference between the two at all.

Nevertheless, there’s no doubt about the fact that this meat substitute was probably the best meat imitation that we have ever tasted. Flavor wise, it works as a good substitute for meat, and the satisfaction of cravings and the enjoyment of eating it got passing marks from us as well.

However, whether you feel full and satisfied after a meal of NEXT meat is a different story. Perhaps because it’s simply a mash of soybeans, we really did not feel full after eating it. Even though we ate a lot, we were hungry again pretty soon afterwards. You probably won’t have to worry about indigestion or feeling a heavy stomach like you would from eating lots of fatty meat, but it doesn’t carry the same satisfaction as meat does either.

There’s also one more problem: price. NEXT Karubi comes in 50 gram portions for 310 yen, and NEXT Harami for 290 yen for the same amount. Normal meat karubi is 220 yen for 50 grams, or 330 for 100, while harami is 310 yen and 520 yen respectively.

Surprisingly, the real karubi meat is actually cheaper, and 100 grams of real harami is also a better value than the NEXT meat, making real meat the overall more affordable kind of yakiniku, especially if you order a lot.

Still, though, if you are a vegetarian or a vegan or otherwise have a diet that excludes meat, and are craving a meaty flavor or something hearty, this might be a good option for you. You’re still getting the same yakiniku flavor and experience, so it’s almost like eating real yakiniku, and truly the price isn’t that bad if a meatless diet is something that’s necessary or important to you.

Starting on November 1, NEXT meat substitutes will be available at the Shinbashi main branch, the Shinjuku West Exit branch, the Akasaka-mitsuke branch, and the Ueno branch as well as the Shibuya Utagawa branch of Yakiniku Like, so if you’re interested, definitely give it a try!

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