"Simple flavors evoke complex emotions," says the author referring to a simple but tasty gyudon dish. Photo from Pixabay
Food & Drink Features

My long distance relationship with the best gyudon on Earth

It brings me back to the first time I stretched my soul out and longed for so many things at once—the same way Tender Juicy brings me back to a time of sweaty sandos and wounded knees.
By GIAN LAO | Sep 02 2020

It began because we were a perfect match. After my first bite, I thought: This is everything I need in food. Perfectly cooked Japanese rice, beef, and a variety of sauces and powders—all for 100 yen. I didn’t need to talk to anyone. It was me, a vending machine, and a stub. “Gyumeshi iccho!” the server would say, and three minutes later the tray would arrive bearing a bowl, a tiny wooden box of shichimi, hot tea or cold water depending on the season, and free soup.

I missed free soup. I was studying abroad and I missed asking servers for free soup that tasted vaguely of salt, pepper, oil, and—sometimes—old socks. I missed going out for a meal that didn’t make me feel like I just blew my life savings. And so, every time I had a chance, I would stop by Matsuya and have a beef bowl—even when the 100 yen promo price returned to 300 yen. Classic drug dealer move.

A Matsuya Gyumeshi in 2020

My best friend Fran—a funny and temperamental Spaniard—grew unhappy with my company.

“Why are we eating there again?” he would say. “If I beat you at Tekken, can I pick lunch?”

Japanese people call arcades “game centers,” and there was one right beside Matsuya. 100 yen for two plays. It became our Il Clasico—myself with Paul, Fran with Hwoarang—except I would whoop his ass at least 80 percent of the time. He would slam the machine and say a bunch of things that started with upside down exclamation points. ¡Puta madre! ¡Cabron! ¡I am eating in Matsuya again! ¡Please let me eat udon!

In response, I would usually show my best shit-eating grin and recite Matsuya’s tagline with glee: “Kyou mo, Matsuya!” In English: “Today, also Matsuya!” He would then rant the whole time we were eating. “It’s so greasy!” “I’m sick of it!” I wonder if this was something the colonizers passed down. We loved bickering, but we knew we would never leave the other behind.

Our neighborhood Matsuya was set up like a traditional diner. Kind of like the one from Mendokoro where the diners are sat around the servers. My theory is this encourages more thoughtful conversations. Instead of being in each other’s company, you are sharing a view. Maybe it’s when you’re not looking someone in the eye that secrets can finally break free from their encasements. You are a detective in a noir movie, telling a serious story while looking off into the distance, with full confidence that someone is listening.

Matsuya was where Fran told me he was staying in Japan for four more years. And it’s where I told him I wish I could do the same. This is a friend with whom I traded brutal and inappropriate jokes in the style of the late 2000s—because this story takes place in the late 2000s. We Filipinos were slaves, he would say mischievously. Walk behind me, Esclavo. And I would tell him we would have his head on a pike if he ever visited, which is—I think—partly why he never has. We had a huge argument about whether San Miguel Beer was Filipino or Spanish. He also insisted that he looked like the Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas, and I refuse to acknowledge it, even if he did—a little bit. Matsuya was one of the few places where we took off the masks of machismo—when we didn’t have to look at each other.

“I don’t want you to take it the wrong way, but we have a Filipina helper at home,” he once said. “I love having her around, but she’s overqualified. She’s a trilingual nurse. It doesn’t make sense.”

He would ask: “Is it really that bad in your country?”

I give the one-word answer any Filipino would give, and then a little more. If studying the developed world taught me anything, it was how to comprehend—and explain—the magnitude of our problems. I was the only one among my friends who had ever bribed someone for an original birth certificate; who was offered leakage for the written driver’s licensure exam; who would tell people: “In my country you could probably just bribe someone to do it.”

A premium gyumeshi tray from Matsuya in 2020

Whenever I was hung over, I would go to Matsuya for my first meal of the day. The miso soup tasted heavenly—just a little too hot to drink immediately—with generous amounts of kombu and tofu, fried and thinly sliced.

Whenever I felt particularly lonely, I would go to Matsuya alone on a weekday. In our neighborhood, I would sit with construction workers on their lunch hour, listening only to the working noise of the restaurant staff and the sound of chopsticks on cheap porcelain. It was a valuable lesson for a 20-year-old—that being alone is a little more bearable when you realize that so many other people are alone. There can be lunchtimes without laughter. There can be days when you are too tired to speak. But you can always, always find a small corner with a good bowl of beef and rice.

This undying devotion became a joke among my friends. On my last day in Japan, we gathered in the Matsuya outside our dorm and jointly partook in the great shame of asking a confused server to take a photo of nine gaijin in a fast food joint. It was the first and last time I had small talk with a Matsuya server. It was late evening and we were the only ones there, and thus, he was subjected to a roll call of hometowns. We went to an izakaya, got drunk, and sneaked everyone into our dorm, where we waited for morning. I gave my friends a Sharpie so they could write on my guitar. Fran’s message went: “Para el Filipino esclavo, te deseo mucha suerte en la vida.”

The guitar signed by my closest friends in Japan

Gyudon is a simple dish. Simmered beef and onions over rice, and maybe an egg and some of those red mystery pickles. But I guess if you eat anything with enough frequency, the touching Thai commercial produces itself in your head. In my life, gyudon has figured in many an emotional flashpoint. Simple flavors evoke complex emotions. ‚ÄčIt brings me back to the first time I stretched my soul out and longed for so many things at once—the same way Tender Juicy brings me back to a time of sweaty sandos and wounded knees. I cannot get that anywhere else.

Every time I visit Japan, I google the nearest Matsuya. I make sure to at least have one breakfast, one lunch, and one dinner there—if not more. It keeps me within budget, and allows me to be a tourist in the Tokyo high life on my non-Matsuya days. Some things have changed. Their machines are now touch screens. Their staff composed of more foreigners and immigrants. There were painful moments too. I witnessed the Matsuya in our dorm’s neighborhood undergo a horrid rebrand before well and truly shutting down. Matsuya for yourself, the sign said. I went inside and it was a sit-down restaurant where you had to look your company in the eye.

A Matsuya in Akashi, Japan. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

I’m not sure why Matsuya refers to their gyudon set as premium gyumeshi—which transliterates to “premium beef meal.” Perhaps it’s because Yoshinoya invented the gyudon—and Matsuya is always trying to differentiate. Imagine competing with a beef bowl that traces itself back to the Meiji era—that is Matsuya’s impossible task as a chain that was established 67 years after Yoshinoya opened. Imagine your competitor as a sushi chef saying: “Bruh I invented sushi.” Except that instead of sushi, it’s gyudon.

But Matsuya competes by offering a wider array of products: Salt and pepper yakiniku, a “don” version of a bibimbap (don’t say binbinbap because binbin means erection), mapo tofu, and curry. They sell salad dressing. They have an in-store radio that plays top 40 hits and the occasional Matsuya commercial. They raffled twenty limited edition Matsuya shirts on Instagram last year, which I regretfully missed. They make it so that you can come back every day to have a decent meal without ever getting bored of the food.

Can Yoshinoya in the Philippines approximate the taste of a Japanese Matsuya or Yoshinoya? No. Never. The beef is the same but the rice isn’t. Sometimes, I grin and bear it. I order a beef bowl from Yoshinoya when I am especially sad, and it satisfies me. But most times, it just tastes like disrespect. Like bad, emotionless sex. This is how late-stage capitalism manifests in the gyudon world. The franchise that invented the gyudon is tarnishing its own legacy while collecting franchise fees.

Gyudon is such a simple word to learn. Gyu means “beef” and don means “bowl.” The best gyudon I’ve had in the Philippines is actually not a gyudon but a gyu-tray. A friend of mine, Jake Aycardo (@jakeaycardo on Instagram), made a gyudon-type dish that finally got me to write a short essay about gyudon. Beef, rice, sesame seeds, thinly cut green onions, and poached eggs, good for 6-8 people—but with a twist that would have driven me insane if I’d known about it before eating: smoky talbos ng kamote—which made the entire tray look appetizing, and offered a reconfiguration of a near-perfect Japanese favorite.

A gyudon tray from @jakeaycardo

I wanted to finish the whole thing. It reminded me of my first kiss, which was with a girl who had kissed someone else before. She told me: “It felt like the first time all over again.” This gyu-tray felt like that. This solidified, in my eyes, Jake’s distinction as a gyudon scholar and philosopher. “Is tapsilog a gyudon?” he once asked. Who the hell knows? Maybe Japan can establish an institute that certifies gyudons and other dishes, the same way the Russian government supposedly contracted Dmitri Mendeleev, creator of the periodic table of elements, to set the imperial quality standard for Russian vodka.

Matsuya’s gyudon will never be replaced. What made it special was its simplicity, its 24-hour existence in Tokyo suburbia, the stories we told each other, and the silence in which our loneliness marinated. I realize I am the most demanding of customers, and I must apologize to Yoshinoya. No gyudon can take you back in time—but if Jake Aycardo’s dish proves anything, it’s that some gyudons can at least help you move forward.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve used quite a lonely vocabulary: quarantine, isolation, social distancing. It sounds like exaggeration, but there really are times we find comfort in the dumbest things—even during a time when sources of comfort have grown scarce. Yes, I ate a gyudon and it took me on a trip. It reminded me of my friends who have always been distant since I hopped on the flight home. It reminded me of my seatmates, the construction workers, and their solitary lunches. 

We take things one sad day at a time and maybe eventually, we will move forward. Our bodies a monkey wrench in old systems of oppression. A mango slice in the first California maki. The smoky talbos ng kamote in the gyudon giving us hope that while things will never be the same, they could still be better.