By Takeshi Tojo
Aside from ramen, rice bowls (donburi, or just don) are Japan's most ubiquitous fast food dish. Be it beef, chicken, pork, stir-fry or tuna, everyone has their favourite combination of toppings, and restaurants specialising in one or more variety litter the Tokyo cityscape endlessly. Also popular as take-out grub, the combo of rice and, well, stuff, takes the crown for both simplicity and taste (do try to avoid some of the chain joints though, unless you enjoy overdosing on sodium and additives). Basic bowls are fine for everyday needs, but serious don-dummies will soon start craving something more special. This guide will introduce you to a selection of eight bowls worth seeking out, ranging from time-honoured classics to slightly more experimental creations.
Fill up with these top rice bowls
Those in the know always recommend this specialty dish, courtesy of Musashi-Koyama's Kuishinbo Gabu. The sliced Aussie beef steak on top of the rice is laid out so as to resemble a flower, and is seasoned minimalistically with soy sauce, salt, and pepper. Although not overly heavy on rice in the first place, the bowl is also available as a mini-version for all you small eaters. The lunch set comes with miso soup and a small side dish.
This yakitori joint once had a location in Shinbashi and was known for the 'Shinbashi-don', a bowl filled with juicy grilled chicken. The special was renamed accordingly after Yamazaru's move to Azabu-Juban, but was also slightly upgraded in the process. The current creation features wings, chicken meatballs, thigh meat, grilled skewered chicken, and green onion, which are then combined with salmon roe, yam, and an egg for a mighty piece of work that may or may not require more than one person to finish off.
Asakusa's Ri-to Kitchen focuses on the cuisines of Japan's isolated islands. The name of their most popular dish means 'cold shimame pickled bowl' – a speciality of Shimane Prefecture. 'Shimame' is local dialect for squid, so the bowl's contents translate to fresh raw squid tossed with soy sauce. This delicacy, originating among the fishermen of Oki Island, is refreshingly mild and completely free of any fishy smell.
This beef steak bowl has been on the menu for over six decades at Akasaka's golden oldie Tsutsui. Every bite you take of the sirloin steak will release more juicy goodness, and the 'secret sauce' with which it's seasoned makes this dish a true gem. The lunch set comes with miso soup and a side of pickled vegetables.
This Tsukiji eatery, famous for its hitsumabushi (charcoal-grilled eel over rice), also serves the eccentric unidon (sea urchin bowl). The rice comes covered amply with sea urchin, with salmon roe placed on top, and finished off with fresh cream sauce. Mix it all together for a taste that certainly won't be easily forgotten.
The Jandon is the speciality of Budoya, a chicken-focused restaurant with locations in Ginza and Omori. This dish contains house-made miso flavoured with sweet soy sauce, mustard-seasoned spinach, and aromatic thigh meat laid over rice. Arrange the components as you desire for a mix of sweet and spicy flavours that really bring out the best in the juicy chicken. The lunch set comes with miso soup, a side of pickled vegetables, and fruit.
If you’re going to try a rice bowl from Marutomi, the obvious choice is the Unadon (eel bowl). However, do note that the eel served here is done Kansai-style, meaning that the skin is grilled until crispy. The eel meat is thick yet soft, with the sauce rich and a bit on the sweet side. Many customers get the dish to go, so the shop always keeps grilling more and more eel, meaning that you’ll see a freshly made bowl appear before your eyes almost immediately after ordering. The normal size will set you back ¥1,800, while the double size is ¥3,350. You can also get a large serving of rice for each dish for an additional ¥50.
This small Japanese restaurant in Akasaka is famous for its anago conger eel. If you’re going to try one thing here, it should be the anago-don, which combines aromatic grilled eel with fluffy eggs and sweet sauce, producing a damn near perfect mixture.