We visit Japan’s big three combini, plus one dark horse contender, on our search for nikuman bliss.

Once upon a time, Japanese convenience stores only sold steamed buns in the fall and winter, under the assumption that because they’re served hot, people wouldn’t want to eat them during the warmer parts of the year. That didn’t turn out to be the case at all, and nowadays convenience stores sell steamed buns all year round.

Still, we have to admit that as the temperatures go down, our cravings for piping-hot steamed buns goes up, so we plan to eat a whole bunch of them over the next few months. So to maximize our dining pleasure, we decided to find out which convenience store chain has the best pork buns, or nikuman, as they’re called in Japanese.

Obviously, nikuman from the big three of the combini world, 7-Eleven, Family Mart, and Lawson, were must-eats. We decided to round out the test by including Mini Stop, a second-tier convenience store that nonetheless occasionally produces some wonderous snacks (like the bento boxed lunch inside a rice ball and the Gyoza Dog), and it was Mini Stop that was our first stop on this taste test odyssey.

Mini Stop’s steamed pork bun is priced at 140 yen (US$1.22), which has become the current going rate for convenience store pork buns. Japanese convenience stores keep their buns in a steamer case near the register, so we asked the clerk for one, and as soon as we had it we headed outside to eat it right then and there.

Sure, we could have waited until we were back at the office, but nikuman are at their most delicious fresh from the steamer, before they’ve had time to get cold or soggy, and we wanted to give each store a fair chance at winning the pork bun crown.

It turns out that the Mini Stop nikuman is a very orthodox take on the pork bun. In addition to pork, nikuman often have sliced bamboo shoots and mushroom, and in Mini Stop’s bun everything is finely diced for a uniform texture. This is the opposite of the recent trend for larger, more distinct chunks of the different ingredients, but the old-school approach works just fine here. Really, the only problem is that Mini Stop doesn’t have nearly as many branches as the other convenience stores we’re including in this test, and the tasty but very familiar flavor of their nikuman might not be worth making a special trip to a Mini Stop for, if you don’t happen to already be near one.

Next we hit up Family Mart.

Family Mart’s nikuman are the lowest-priced of the bunch, at just 130 yen each.

They’re also have the most unique, and pronounced, flavor, with a sweetness that almost had us thinking of teriyaki sauce. Family Mart goes with the recently popular style of larger pieces for its bamboo shoots, and they actually end up sort of overshadowing the meat, but overall this is a delicious choice if you’re craving something both meaty and sweet, and the bun’s outer layer is nice and fluffy.

Round three took us to Lawson.

Here the nikuman price is back up to 140 yen, but the issue we had wasn’t with the price.

Instead, the problem was with the texture of the fillings. Like the Family Mart nikuman, the pieces are large-cut, but the overall mouthfeel, and especially for the meat, was on the soggy side. The dough, though, was quite nice, and managed to avoid the mushiness of what was inside.

And finally, we arrived at 7-Eleven.

Because of how Japan’s sales tax is calculated, the price is officially listed as 140.40 yen, but that rounds down to 140 at the register.

So how was it?

Pretty much exactly what we wanted. Fluffy outer layer, nice big filling piece on the inside, and the most pronounced meatiness of the bunch.

Honestly, even with the sogginess of the Lawson bun, none of these were bad, and we’d in no way regret chowing down on any of these contenders the next time we’re hungry. If we’re in a position where we need to pick just one, though, for now, 7-Eleven is the king of convenience store pork buns.

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