“Let’s go grab a cheap gyu-don lunch”. That was something I often did when I was still new to this country. For me, gyu-don is THE Japanese fast food. The food gets to you within a couple of minutes. The price is cheap, starting from 250 yen and it wouldn’t break 1000 yen even if you order the fancier and meatier options with different toppings. It is delicious while never amazing. Many salary-man depend on it on the way to and from work.
That was my image of gyu-don, until I walked by this little shop right across from Tokyo’s Ueno JR Station randomly one night. Gyu-no-Chikara (牛の力), the Power of Cows. The captivating name caught my attention, then I noticed their gyu-don menu.
A better view at daytime
Photo: Keiichi Yasu on Flickr
“600 yen for the regular size Tokyo Gyu-don”
“720 yen for the regular size Red/White Gyu-Chikara-don (Cow Power Rice), 870 yen for large.”
Charging almost three times the price of what is typically a cheap quick fill, I went in intrigued but also with an attitude to challenge how can they justify the price.
Affordable isn't it?!
Photo: Keiichi Yasu on Flickr
While they also serve a plain gyu-don using Japanese beef, the chef-specialities are the Red and White gyu-chikara-don. As a fan of spicy food, I ordered the Red during my first visit. A decent portioned bowl of rice was presented in front of me minutes later. From the bottom to top: rice, onion and beef, spicy red miso, soft-boiled onsen-egg, and dried chilli strings. You can easily dissect the ingredients just by looking at it. It was nothing complicated. The eating instructions were to break up the perfectly boiled egg and mixed all the ingredients together with the rice. Stirring the miso and the egg together greased up the rice. The beef and onion were very well cooked with high grade sweet soy-sauce and it brought out the flavourful yet delicate taste of Japanese beef. Chilli strings added a dry chewy texture with a punch. It was a simple formula that genuinely surprised me. It was so delicious I found myself putting chunk after chunk into my mouth to keep the enjoyment coming. The shop also had fresh garlic gloves and garlic presses on the table for guests to add an additional kick, which I appreciated a lot more than the common garlic served at most restaurants that are pre-pressed and have lost a lot of flavour. While the portion wasn’t huge for the regular size, I was vastly satisfied.
I enjoyed it so much that I made my second visit the week after to try out the White for comparison: rice, the same tasty onion and beef, a thick slice of butter, onsen-egg, and seaweed strips. I stirred everything up as it recommended as well. In contrast, the white gyu-chikara-don was a mild and gentle. The surprise came when the melted butter turned the bowl of hot rice creamy and rich. The small pile of seaweed provided a welcomed change of texture. The beef, of course, was just as amazing as before. I added the fresh pressed garlic about half way through for the missing kick and thoroughly enjoyed the bowl of premium gyu-don until the end.
It was a mistake walking in comparing it to gyu-dons from cheap chain shops. This was beef and rice in a completely different league. The care the chef puts into their choices of ingredients made this simple common cuisine an affordable master-piece. If you are a fan of the typical fast-food gyu-don, you should find a chance to treat yourself to one of these Red or White gyu-don. COW POWER!