Fight! Fight! Fight!
Times are tough in Japan, and, as reported here on RocketNews24 earlier this week, the country’s two biggest gyūdon chains, Sukiya and Yoshinoya, are tightening their belts after seeing financial losses in the first half of the tax year.
The restaurants’ response to the decrease in profits? Stop cutting costs, end the focus on dirt-cheap dishes and instead launch new, fancier menus in the hope of enticing new customers and squeezing a few extra yen out of regular patrons.
Both Yoshinoya and Sukiya’s new dishes that are more than twice the price of their regular gyūdon staples, but the restaurants claim that they are a cut above the rest as a result. But will the average salary-man, with just 500 yen per day to spend on lunch, want to pay extra for a fancier menu? And if they do, which dish should they choose?
Armed with a camera and grumbling stomachs, we headed out to both restaurants on two seperate days to try the new dishes for ourselves.
Let the New Gyūdon Wars begin!
First up, Sukiya’s new Ton kabayaki don, which features tender, charcoal-grilled glazed pork with a sprinkling of spring onion on a bed of rice.
Here’s what the menu promised:
And here’s what we got:
Not bad at all! Especially when compared to the difference between photos of Lotteria’s Tower Cheeseburger and the real deal.
So what do we have here, exactly?
This is a regular-size Ton kabayaki don (posh, charcoal-grilled glazed pork on rice) which comes with a generous sprinkling of spring onion and, a few sansho Japanese peppercorns in a dish on the side, which my waitress recommended I sprinkle on the dish as I preferred.
Sukiya markets its new dish- priced at 630 yen (US$8)- as a high quality pork dish, placing emphasis on the fact that the meat is tender enough to be broken apart with chopsticks alone.
Lo-and-behold- it’s true!
This is some seriously tender pork, and we had no problem whatsoever cutting the meat apart and taking bite-sized chunks, rather than having to pick the entire thing up and bite on it like a caveman.
The glazed pork smells absolutely devine, and had we been presented with the dish in another other environment, we would never have imagined that we were eating in a Japanese fast food chain.
Starting to salivate while we snapped photos, we quickly dived in, starting with the meat.
This is definitely a cut about the rest.
The meat is soft and juicy, and actually tastes like a real cut of pork, rather than just compacted cut-offs that gyūdon restaurants usually serve up. The sauce is rich, a little bit sweet and sticky, and compliments the pork well, with the occasional hint of peppercorn certainly providing welcome surprises and variation during the meal.
One thing we weren’t so fond of, though, was the fatty pork rind. Sure, some people go nuts for the fattier part of their meat, and the presence of both lean meat and fat goes some way to proving that this is much more than just processed cut-offs, but at one point we found ourselves with a long chunk of fat and little else. Since the pork is presented in one large chunk on top of the rice, and, as the ad suggests, the meat is easily broken apart with chopsticks, we found that all of the meat fell away from the rind, leaving us with fat that can’t be broken up unless the diner has ninja-level chopstick skills or, failing that, a knife and fork.
It’s a minor quibble, and perhaps those who prefer to be healthy and remove the ring altogether this is a good thing, but for the rest of us, we’d rather enjoy the meal as a whole, rather than “meat, rice, meat, rice, mouthful of fat”.
But, in the interests of a fair review, we ploughed through and finished the meal, fatty bits and all.
Sukiya’s new pork dish is undeniably of much higher quality than we’re used to at a gyūdon joint, and was definitely very tasty, but when the price is considered, we can’t help but feel it struggles to satisfy somewhat.
Soup, salad, kimchi and a whole host of other side dishes can of course be added, but when the regular bowl of pork and rice alone comes to 630 yen, few would be tempted to add on extras and go over the 700 yen mark just to fill up.
For the average salary man, the likes of whom we’ve seen polish off XL size beef bowls with soup and salad in no time, Sukiya’s new dish alone will probably fail to satisfy. For those who might not ordinarily visit Sukiya, but find themselves with few other restaurant options, though, this Ton kabayaki don dish would probably appeal more.
Next up, Yoshinoya’s Gyū Yakiniku Don (Korean barebecue-style beef bowl):
At 150 yen (US$1.90) cheaper than Sukiya’s new dish, Yoshinoya’s beef bowl definitely wins points for being within the average salary-man’s lunchtime budget.
But, fancy new name and a handful of sesame seeds aside, isn’t this just the same old gyūdon that we’ve been eating for years in lieu of a proper lunch? We took a bowl out for a spin.
Not bad, Yoshinoya, not bad at all!
As with Sukiya’s new addition, Yoshinoya’s Gyū Yakiniku Don certainly impressed when it arrived at our table, and looks almost exactly the same as its promotional images.
And what’s this, we have here?
Yoshinoya has gone the extra step in simulating the genuine yakiniku restaurant flavour by providing a small packet of spicy tare (sauce) with its new addition to the menu.
It certainly looks the business, but how does it fare in the taste department?
While we were certainly satisfied with the taste and texture of the meat, and it definitely impresses on its own level, we couldn’t even begin to suggest that the ingredients employed here are anywhere near on-par with those in Sukiya’s Ton kabayaki don. Yoshinoya’s meat is, while a marked improvement over the regular gyūdon, nowhere near as tender or authentic and Sukiya’s.
Yoshinoya’s new baby is undeniably tasty, and captures that “just one more bite” moreishness that we’ve experienced ay yakiniku restaurants, but in a straight-up comparison, we couldn’t help but feel that Sukiya’s dish provided a greater sense of refinement.
But then, this isn’t Master Chef, and we’re not here to eat Michelin Star quality cuisine- we’re here for a satisfying lunch that won’t bankrupt us, and for that reason we can’t help but lean towards Yoshinoya’s Gyū Yakiniku Don.
At 480 yen (US$6), Yoshinoya’s beef bowl is a tasty meal at a reasonable price. As with Sukiya’s effort, we hardly felt full when we’d finished the bowl, but, having spent less than at Sukiya for a dish of the same size, we had the option to go large or add side order to our beef bowl, which, for us, and the hungry salary-man, is something of a deal-breaker.
- The verdict:
Sukiya’s Ton kabayaki Don is undoubtedly the superior dish of the two, but as a quick working lunch on a budget, Yoshinoya’s Gyū Yakiniku Don is the clear winner.
It tastes great and is priced reasonably, providing enough of a departure from traditional beef bowls to be warrant the extra 100 yen. It could be a little more exciting, and it is just another beef bowl when all is said and done, but it’s still damn tasty, and won’t break the bank.
Were we given a choice of the two dishes for the same amount of money, we’d probably go with Sukiya’s pork bowl, but as it stands, it simply doesn’t feel like very good value for money, and begs the question of who exactly Sukiya is targeting with the dish. After all, if you add a side salad and a small bowl of miso soup in an effort to fill up a little more, the cost of the meal exceeds 700 yen, and for that price there are plenty of other, healthier, options available on the average highstreet.
The meat in Yoshinoya’s Gyū Yakiniku Don can’t quite compare to that of Sukiya’s new dish, and the spicy sauce coming in a little plastic packed definitely breaks the illusion of eating anywhere but a fast food joint, but ultimately that’s what this is- a dish at a fast food restaurant. And for that reason, we can’t help but give Yoshinoya a little credit for not trying to be something that it’s not.
Sorry, Sukiya- we like what you’ve done here, but this round goes to Yoshinoya.
Everyone on their feet while we sing the Yoshinoya theme song. Gyū-don is dead! All hail the Gyū Yakiniku Don!
Brand logos (C) Sukiya and Yoshinoya Photos: RocketNews24