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The Low Down on Japanese Fast-Food

Slow down and sit down to a quick meal from your new favorite eat-in or take-out restaurant.

By 7 min read

Fast food in Japan looks a little different from the West. While American chains like McDonald’s and KFC tend to dominate the rankings, there are other Japanese fast-food restaurants where you can find an affordable meal in under 15 minutes.

Note: My criteria for these chains must include seating and takeaway options. They must be warm and greasy—so no sushi places like Sushiro and Kura Sushi—and the list won’t have sweets, even though adding Mister Donut was tempting.

Gyudon

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Gyudon (beef rice bowl) is a cheap and popular dish for salarymen, students and basically anyone who doesn’t want to think too hard about their next meal. Below are the big three, and you’ll find them practically everywhere in Japan.

Matsuya

Matsuya opened in 1966. Their beef bowl is called gyumeshi (beef rice) to distinguish itself. But you’ll also find salmon, sausage and seasonal items like their carbonara hamburger bowl or spicy kimchi jjigae (Korean stew). Matsuya also has a sister franchise called Matsunoya (only one syllable difference), specializing in tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet).

Try:

  • I would wolf down the mini-gyumeshi when living on a budget (it was only ¥330!)
  • The grilled salmon morning set for a healthier breakfast alternative

Curry is, to many in Japan, a comfort food

Yoshinoya

Yoshinoya opened even earlier than Matsuya, way back in 1899. There’s even been a Yoshinoya in America as early as 1975! While their menu isn’t much different from other gyudon shops, they offer a lot of toppings such as kimchi and a mountain of green onion. They’ve also recently started offering fried chicken bowls.

Try:

  • Their black beef curry is cheap but full of flavor
  • The winter-limited sukiyaki set will warm your bones

Sukiya

Sukiya has around 2000 stores nationwide and is even found in Mexico and Brazil. Their motto is “save time and money,” and as with the others, that’s exactly what you’ll do. Their gyudon menu has six sizes to choose from, so if you are famished, go for the Mega. Then, you’ll never have to eat again.

Zensho Holdings owns them and runs the famous rice bowl and set-meal chain Nakau.

Try:

  • Pork or beef rice bowl with three types of cheese—if it’s wrong, I don’t want to be right
  • Gyudon with kimchi: add a little kick to a classic

Burgers

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Japan does burgers its own way.

Burgers aren’t just an American thing. Japan loves beef patties too. While most Japanese burger chains are styled after American chains, you’ll typically find some kind of Japanese twist, e.g., teriyaki, tartar sauce, etc. Most Japanese burger chains also make it a point that everything is locally sourced from Japan to differentiate themselves from places like McDonald’s.

MOS Burger

MOS stands for “Mountain, Ocean, Sun” and as the name indicates, no matter where you are in Japan (from the beach to the mountain range), you’ll likely find a MOS Burger nearby. The founder was inspired by Los Angeles fast-food joints while in America.

The chain’s menu uses domestically sourced vegetables and hamburgers and offers rice paddies in place of traditional buns. You can even go meat-crazy and sandwich your meal between two patties instead.

Try:

Takoyaki is slathered with mayo, sauce and sprinkled with nori.

Freshness Burger

Freshness Burger is marketed as a “healthy” alternative to regular fast food-food burgers. Its menu includes soy-based patties and lots of greens and tomatoes. However, they also have not-so-healthy-sounding hotdogs and even limited items such as a gyoza burger and a quadruple paddy “homerun burger.”

Try:

Lotteria

Lotteria favors the Japanese palette with—some might say— unusual burger toppings. Their ever-popular shrimp burger still makes waves and is undoubtedly delicious, but their rice buns topped with nori (seaweed) are more of an acquired taste. The chain also loves doing special campaigns that you just don’t see other burger places doing, such as its recent venison burger.

Try

Curry

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Just like grandma used to make.

Curry is, to many in Japan, a comfort food. You can’t toss a stone without hitting a restaurant that has it on the menu. In fact, every gyudon shop above has curry on the menu. However, when it comes to fast food curry, there are two that most of everyone knows.

CoCo Ichibanya

Japanese curry is a worldwide phenomenon. It has a unique taste that is generally sweeter than Indian curry. With 171 locations outside of Japan including in the UK and United States, CoCo Ichibanya must be doing something right. To order you need to pick your chosen base, rice amount, spice level and toppings. How spicy you dare to have it is up to you as you can pick from mild to the highest level, 10.

Try:

  • The staple pork cutlet curry
  • Fried squid curry for the seafood lover

GoGo Curry

Yes, you read that right. With no affiliation with CoCo Ichibanya, the name GoGo Curry refers to the number five in Japanese, go. The obsession comes from the professional baseball player Hideki Matsui who once wore the number 55 on his uniform. Opening and closing times of the store tend to finish on the 55th minute and they often have regular promotions with variations of the number five.

The curry itself has a thick, rich and salty sauce. The large portions are fit for a giant ape, hence the gorilla mascot.

Try:

  • Their original GoGo Curry
  • If you want a challenge, GoGoGo for their World Champion Curry

Japanese classics

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Japanese food is great for take-out. Just look at sushi—you could literally walk around with a handful of bintoro (albacore tuna) and scarf it down with ease. But, seriously, don’t do that.

Gindaco

Crispy on the outside and delectably soft inside, Gindaco takoyaki (fried octopus balls) have an extensive list of options. Takoyaki is typically slathered with Japanese mayo, a savory sauce and sprinkled with nori and bonito (tuna) flakes. They are a popular choice for take-out in the cherry blossom season. However, be careful not to get overly excited and shovel it in—your scorched mouth won’t thank you.

Try:

  • The classic Zettai Umai ( completely delicious) Takoyaki
  • For the culinary adventurer, try takoyaki topped with scorched soy sauce, mochi, cheese and mentaiko (pollack roe)

Watch in awe as the chef flicks your noodles out of boiling water…

Tenya

Tempura is a staple of Japanese cuisine, even if it technically originates from Portugal. Tenya provides this deep-fried battered goodness on top of fluffy white rice without having you fork over thousands of yen. From an assortment of vegetables to seafood, you’ll find something for your preferences.

Try: 

  • The Original All-star Tendon: providing you with an excellent sample of all Tenya has to offer. Shrimp, scallops, squid, mushrooms and more on rice
  • Almost anything from the al a carte menu—sweet potato, chicken, sometimes there’s even tempura-battered cheese!

Hanamaru Udon 

Yes. Even udon (buckwheat noodles) can be greasy enough to be considered fast food once you top it with delicious heart-stopping fried foods and soak it in sweet soy sauce. Hanamaru udon uses Kagawa-style sanuki udon, characterized by its square shape and chewy texture.

The restaurant itself is self-service, and to see it in person redefines “fast food.” You pick your base (soy sauce, radish, curry), ask for hot or cold noodles, and watch in awe as the chef flicks your noodles out of boiling water and plops in your bowl in seconds. It’s cheap (starts at ¥240), dangerously delicious and incredibly filling. 

Try:

Chinese

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Please don’t call these “potstickers.”

People in Japan love Chinese takeout just as much as the West, although you’ll sometimes see a fusion of Japanese-Chinese classics. Or just straight-up Japanese staples such as karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken).

Gyoza no Ohsho

Gyoza no Ohsho’s, as the name implies, is famous for its gyoza. The name roughly translates to “gyoza king.” Cheap, salty and filled with garlic, they satiate that savory craving. They also serve many other Chinese comfort foods from noodles to fried rice. Just remember to swallow a mint before kissing your significant other. 

Try: 

Hidakaya

Hidakya is an unbelievably Chinese noodle shop founded in Hidaka City in Saitama Prefecture. The founder says it’s also from the English words “high” and “day” because eating ramen gave him a “high day.” The man knows what he likes. 

The menu is extensive—practically every Chinese staple dish is accounted for. It’s also open 24 hours and located around smaller stations. So if you’re out late at 4 a.m. and craving some Chinese food, you can count on Hidakya.

Try:

What’s your CoCo Ichibanya curry spice level? Did I forget to include your favorite chain? Let us know below.

What’s your CoCo Ichibanya curry spice level? Did I forget to include your favorite chain? Let us know below.

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