Saturday, October 17, 2015

How to eat: Matsuya – delicious beef bowls with added spice

In this new series, we will offer step-by-step instructions to eating at some of the best value fast-food restaurants and chains in Tokyo. The city offers an incredible amount of places to eat well and inexpensively, but for the first-time visitor, it can be bewildering to understand the many different options. Whereas you can find any amount of fancy restaurants in every guidebook, the real deals are usually in the many excellent chains offering beef bowls, curry, ramen and other Japanese staples. They are all easy to eat at once you understand the system, and are vastly superior to Western chains such as McDonalds and KFC. However, the first visit may be confusing if you are not familiar with the system. But don't worry – if you follow these simple steps you will be well rewarded with a great meal, and best of all you'll never have to go to McDonald's again!

Today we go to Matsuya, a ubiquitous chain that offers beef bowls (gyumeshi or gyudon, meaning literally beef in a rice bowl) and other dishes such as curry plates and barbecued meat. Matsuya is everywhere so you will have no trouble finding one, just keep your eyes open for the  characteristic blue letters on yellow background (although their website has a store locator just in case).

The name is generally written only with the Japanese characters "matsu" (pine tree, or highest) and "ya" (store), but the blue text and the red, yellow and blue logo are easy to spot.

Before entering, you can check out what's on offer on the menu outside with helpful English translations! They often have special items or limited offers too, but these are generally advertised in Japanese only.

It is not exactly a cozy place for a romantic dinner, but for a casual meal it is a great option – quick and delicious, and very good value. They even offer beer and small snacks if you just want to relax after a hard day's sightseeing or shopping!

Matsuya uses a system that is very common at Japanese fast-food places: a ticket vending machine for orders. (By the way, a vending machine is not in any way an indicator that a restaurant is low quality – for instance, many excellent noodle places use one too.) Vending machines may spell trouble if you can't read Japanese, but fortunately, most Matsuay shops have switched over to new machines with interactive touch-screens and an English language option. So first of all, make sure to switch to the English option – it's the middle yellow button.

You will then be offered a choice between eat-in or take-away orders. (Take-aways are cheaper but don't include miso soup.)  Once you have selected the one you want, there will be a number of submenus. 

In addition to gyumeshi (regular beef bowls), there are other bowls including Korean-inspired barbecue beef, sliced pork, etc. Several bowls include kimchi, which is a spicy cabbage and chili concoction popular in Korean food. You can also get curry plates with rice and beef or hamburgers. There are often special menus too, which tend to be offered for a limited time. You can round out your meal with different side items such as salads and toppings.

The classic choice is of course the gyumeshi or beef bowl. Depending on the store, there will be either regular or premium guymeshi on offer; the latter has higher quality but is a little more expensive. Don't worry though – both are good! The bowls come in different sizes, and even the smallest is filling, but a regular size should be more than enough unless you are very hungry. Add in a fresh salad from the sides menu, and you have a well-rounded and healthy meal!

Once you have made your decision, you just input money in the machine and push the correct meal button. A ticket will vend in a slot to the left. You can use both coins and bills, and when you are done ordering, press the red Change button to get your change back. If you use large bills, you will get paper money in return, so you don't have to end up with a sack of coins if you happen to just have a 10.000 yen bill! You can even use a public transport payment card such as Suica or Pasmo – just touch the card to the reader when prompted.

The machine will vend a ticket a ticket for each item that you have ordered. Go to the counter and sit down. A server will come over with a fresh glass of water and take your ticket, tear off half, and give the other half back as confirmation. If you are getting take-out, you can go to a take-out counter in the back and wait.

While you are waiting for your order, you can contemplate the different dressings and sauces on offer, including (left to right) French dressing, barbecue sauce and sesame dressing (goma). Feel free to try them out and put them on your rice or salad!

You will find chopsticks in a glass-lidded box on the counter, as well as napkins.

Now we have received our premium gyumeshi beef bowl, for a very reasonable 480 yen (about 4 US dollars)! It consists of a layer of thinly sliced beef, covering a generous amount of rice, some green onions, all topped with a soft-boiled egg. You also get a cup of miso soup and a small wooden spice container – just pull out the tiny plug and sprinkle some on your beef if you want it extra spicy!

This is an example of a Korean-inspired beef bowl, made with generous amount of kimchi, a soft-boiled egg, and some sea-weed topping for good measure! Very good value for 450 yen. The beer is also bought from the vending machine, and may be the best deal of all, just 150 yen!

Overall, Matsuya offers an excellent range of good and inexpensive food options made from fresh ingredents, and it is head and shoulders over any Western fast-food chains. So the next time you are feeling hungry in Tokyo, but don't feel like going to a fancy restaurant, bypass the sandwiches and hamburgers and go to Matsuya for a great meal! It's one of the best deals in Tokyo!

Quick facts


Where to find it: Everywhere – Matsuya has over 800 restaurants. Store locator

Price: Beef bowls start at 380 yen including miso soup. Set meals around 500-600 yen.

Hours: Open 24 hours.

Order system: Touchscreen, English menu available. A few places still have the old-fashioned mechanical vending machines, but even they will have clear pictures and English translations for the most popular items.

Take-out? Yes.

Vegetarian options? Not really, although you can get salads and eggs as side dishes. (We will investigate further and update if we find any better options.)

What to get: The gyumeshi beef bowl is the chain's staple and great value. Korean-inspired kimchi bowls and binbin are also good if you want a little more spice. Draft beer is a steal at 150 yen.

1 comment:

  1. I miss my Gyudon meals from Matsuya, been 3 years since my last bowl. It really is delicious and cheap and you can get it at any time. Matsuya is a lot easier to order from than Yoshinoya, even before they started using the touch screens. Thanks for writing this up!


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