Let me preface all of this by saying that I've never been to a Yoshinoya Beef Bowl, and I'm willing to bet that you haven't either. In fact, I don't know anyone who has dined at a Yoshinoya Beef Bowl, and my contacts folder reads like a who's-who of questionable eaters. Yet, inexplicably, those orange-and-white huts are everywhere. There is an off chance, I suppose, that you've experienced a taste of the namesake beef bowl on some late night, after confusing the Yoshinoya logo with the Jägermeister logo and stumbling your way inside. It's not hard to do.
For the rest of us, there are questions. What's it actually like inside a Yoshinoya Beef Bowl? Where did it come from — and why won't it leave? More importantly: How's the food?
First, you need to forget what you think you know about all those fast food burger and taco menus. Instead of 60 cubic feet of value meals, combo deals, wraps and sides, the Yoshinoya entree list is exactly six items long. There are Beef Bowls®, with that menacing Registered Trademark character that lets you know that you can't just go putting cow parts inside bowls all willy-nilly. Then there are chicken bowls, vegetable bowls and combination bowls, which are just a mix of the previous three. The Yaki udon chicken and yaki udon beef bowls round out the list, but are actually designated as “new” items. I shudder to think of the dark days before yaki udon came to pass at Yoshinoya.
There are other items on the limited menu, odd choices like macaroni salad and clam chowder. These aren't exactly the sort of signature dishes you'd expect from a franchise chain that offers pickled ginger next to the soda fountain. You could also pick up an order of sesame wings, some sort of fish platter I thought better of, or little six- or nine-piece boxes of chicken gyoza. Finally, something fried to eat.
If it's your first visit, you're legally obligated to purchase a Beef Bowl®, but at under $4.50 you certainly won't be breaking the bank. What you get for your money is a hefty styrofoam tub of whisper-thin beef, thawed-out veggies and a mound of thick white rice. The beef, glowingly described on the Yoshinoya website as “USDA approved” (thank God) is soft and velvety, with a bit of funkiness from the broth and onion mix it was originally prepared in. The long, loose piles of beef almost taste like tripe, with fatty edges, a hint of funk and unmistakable chewiness. As for the rice, it is wet and thick with the same undertones of herbs and broth. Imagine straining the rice out of a gumbo and adding a touch of flour so it would stick together, and you start to get the idea.
Of the vegetables, only the onions stand out. They come translucent and lacking most of their punch, but with the benefit of having soaked up a bit of that teriyaki/soy sauce umami flavor. You'd have more success with the crinkle-cut carrots and pale broccoli if it were still frozen in the bag and helping to stop the swelling on a black eye. These are not vegetables in the way that we have come to understand them at the farmers market, they're empty color additions for an otherwise beige lunch.
The little six-piece gyoza pods don't fare much better. At once wet and sharp, the doughy half-disks are dry at the edges and have an oily haggis consistency in the middle. If “oily” and “haggis” are two things you regularly look for on a menu, toss on some provided soy sauce and go wild! Otherwise, steer clear.
Thankfully, the yaki udon exists at Yoshinoya. Well, “thankfully” is a relative term here, considering the fat, slick noodles are at or just below the average food-court quality. Still, for Yoshinoya, this stuff tastes like a sesame-seeded home run. The chicken actually looks and tastes like real bird, thigh meat that's been chunked up and coated with oil, ginger and garlic in the wok. And while my collection of yaki udon noodles showed up precipitously different than the corporate image (and seemed to be missing the snow peas), it wasn't half bad. Top off with a dusting of the tame chili flakes found around the dining area and you may just have yourself a meal.
After carefully avoiding Yoshinoya Beef Bowl for so many years, I'm sort of relieved to have a sense of what's inside, even if what's inside is largely as bad as I had imagined. In this city, where I'll eat a hot dog made from turkey beaks if it's been wrapped in bacon and passed over once or twice with a lighter, the low-grade food that Yoshinoya prepares doesn't even register as offensive. It merely exists, as one low-cost option in a sea of others, vying for your dollars at every intersection in Los Angeles. You can stop noticing Yoshinoyas for years, and then pull into a strip mall and come face to face with the orange-and-white decor all over again. And I imagine that on my deathbed, as I reach for the curtain to catch a final glimpse of radioactive sunlight over the post-apocalyptic rubble (seriously, the future is going to be crazy), I'll spot a Yoshinoya Beef Bowl on the horizon, beckoning me with barely certifiable beef.
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