We tear the Big Three’s gyudon apart to see if we can rebuild them into something better.

Beef bowls, or gyudon, as they’re called in Japanese, are about as simple as a meal gets. You’ve got stewed beef, of course, plus onions and white rice, and that’s it.

And yet, Japan has three major gyudon chains, Yoshinoya, Matsuya, and Sukiya, all with their own version of the dish. So we started wondering, what would happen if you took the three gyudon components, beef, onions, and rice, from the big three chains and mixed them together? Could you stumble on the combination to unlock the ultimate gyudon?

We put our Japanese-language reporter MG Ogawa in charge of this highly scientific investigation, and he started by making a run to the local branches of Yoshinoya, Matsuya, and Sukiya, coming back with a beef bowl from each.

▼ Clockwise from top: Matsuya, Yoshinoya, and Sukiya

Arriving back at the taste-test center while each was still piping hot, MG removed the takeout containers lids, and a triple-spout of mouthwatering gyudon fragrances wafted up to stimulate his appetite and challenge his willpower.

MG stayed firm in his resolve, though, and got to work quickly separating the beef, onions, and rice for each.

▼ Left to right: Sukiya, Yoshinoya, and Matsuya

We’re going to have MG wait just a little longer to start digging in while we go over the rules. For this taste test, the three ingredients for each combination have to all come from different chains. So, for example, Sukiya beef-Yoshinoya onions-Matsuya rice is eligible, but Sukiya beef-Sukiya onions-Matsuya rice isn’t an admissible candidate.

That gives us a total of six different combinations to taste test, so let’s look at MG’s notes.

● Combination 1: Sukiya beef, Yoshinoya onions, Matsuya rice

“Sukiya’s beef [which has a touch of sweet and tangy citrus in its marinade] makes a surprisingly powerful impression. By comparison, Yoshinoya’s onions seem more like an occasional guest on the taste buds, and the flavor of Matsuya’s rice ends up completely hidden.”

● Combination 2: Sukiya beef, Matsuya onions, Yoshinoya rice

“Matsuya’s onions are the most flavorful of the three chains’, with a bit of crispness to them. With those factors in their arsenal, I thought they might clash with the Sukiya beef, but they actually go really well together, with the Matsuya onions supporting the flavorful beef nicely for a well-balanced result.”

● Combination 3: Yoshinoya beef, Sukiya onions, Matsuya rice

“Yoshinoya’s meat really comes on strong here. Its beef strips are the largest of the three, and their flavor envelops the onions and rice. This was pretty good, but so far none of the combinations have really surpassed what you get with a regular as-is beef bowl from one of the chains.”

● Combination 4: Yoshinoya beef, Matsuya onions, Sukiya rice

“HERE IT IS! This is the ultimate beef bowl-level I was waiting for. The Yoshinoya beef achieves a delicious harmony with Matsuya’s top-tier-flavorful onions, and because Sukiya pours on the most stew juices when putting together its gyudon, that flavor gets soaked into their rice, letting it make a great contribution here. This was shockingly good.”

● Combination 5: Matsuya beef, Sukiya onions, Yoshinoya rice

“Matsuya’s marinade has the strongest soy sauce notes, and that flavor hits you right at the start as you bite into a piece of beef. That’s followed by the gentle arrival of Sukiya’s onions, but together they kind of bury the taste of Yoshinoya rice. Maybe it’s because Sukiya and Yoshinoya’s seasoning is sweeter than Matsuya’s, but the beef kind of overpowers everything else here.”

● Combination 6: Matsuya beef, Yoshinoya onions, Sukiya rice

“Wait a second, what’s going on here? I’m supposed to be eating mix-and-match beef bowls, but this…everything goes together so perfectly. All the flavors come together so perfectly that this really feels like something that’s on the menu at one restaurant, instead of a combination of food from three different places.”

So in the end, it’s Combination 4, Yoshinoya beef-Matsuya onions-Sukiya rice, that packed the biggest pleasurable punch, while Combination 6, Matsuya beef-Yoshinoya onions-Sukiya rice did the best job of feeling, to MG, like a natural evolution and enhancement of the basic gyudon recipe. It’s worth noting that in both cases, the rice, bringing with it the marinade flavor, comes from Sukiya, so they’re really onto something with their seasoning.

Of course, the downside to making your own gyudon like this is that you end up with three gyud-…wait, actually there isn’t any downside at all.

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[ Read in Japanese ]