If ramen is like the hamburger of Japan, gyudon—steamed rice topped with beef and onions simmered in sake and soy sauce—is its hot dog: a quick, easy meal that's equally at home at the food court or on your kitchen table.
You know that scene at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever where John Travolta orders a couple of slices of pizza from a sidewalk window, stacks them on top of each other, gives them the New York fold, and struts down the street, meal in hand? That is a scene you are unlikely to see in Japan, and it's not because disco wasn't popular (it was), or because Japanese people have a thing against John Travolta (they don't), or even because they don't love pizza (they do).
The issue is the whole walking-while-eating thing. It just doesn't happen in Japan. Going to the 7-Eleven to pick up some pizza-flavored steamed buns? You're taking them home before you dig in. Hitting up Starbucks for a coffee? You're standing there and finishing the coffee before you step back out on the street.
Because of this, traditional fast-food culture in Japan is quite different from that of the US. Fewer sandwiches and handheld snacks; more hastily slurped or shoveled bowls of food. All this is changing as cultural exchange with the West increases, of course, but ramen, curry, and rice bowls still remain staples of the quick-dining scene.
Head into any Japanese shopping-mall food court (or the food court of a Japanese chain in the US, like Mitsuwa or Yoshinoya) and I guarantee gyudon will be on the menu. What's fantastic is that it's also incredibly easy to make at home, requiring only a single pan and virtually no experience or skill whatsoever. If you can boil water, you can make gyudon.
There are a couple of keys to good gyudon. First is getting the beef. It's typically made with ribeye or chuck that's been shaved extra thin on a meat slicer. You'll be able to find good meat for gyudon in Japanese supermarkets, but if you don't have access to that, any beef intended for Philly cheesesteaks will work (even the frozen stuff!). Alternatively, you can buy a chuck steak, place it in the freezer until it's very firm but not frozen solid, then slice it as thinly as you can with a knife. It's okay if the meat ends up shredding a bit. Perfection is not what we're going for here.
For the onions, I like to slice them radially into slivers rather than rings. I do that by first cutting off the stem and the root, then slicing the onion in half from pole to pole (the knife should go through the spaces where the stem and the root used to be). After that, I lay each onion half flat on the cutting board and slice it from pole to pole, angling the knife so that it's always cutting toward the center of the onion.
If you found that hard to follow, don't worry. It's just me being overly anal about something that ultimately makes very little difference in what is meant to be a simple dish.
Once the onions are sliced, I place them in a pot and cover them with a mixture of dashi (the basic Japanese broth made with kelp and smoked bonito), sake, soy sauce, and sugar. This sweet-savory-salty combo is the backbone of Japanese cooking, and you'll see it come up time and time again.
Homemade dashi is all well and good if you've got some already made, and even making it from scratch takes no more than a few minutes, but this is a case in which powdered Hondashi will do just fine, given the other strongly flavored ingredients.
If you happen to enjoy braised daikon, you can also add slices of daikon radish with the onions at this point. It all simmers together just until the onions are tender.
Next, in goes the beef. Because it's so thinly sliced, it will cook very quickly, losing its red color almost instantly. The goal is to cook it all down until the broth reduces to an intensely flavored sauce that penetrates the meat. With a typical braise, this can take hours. With the thinly shaved beef in gyudon, it takes just a couple of minutes. I like to stir in some grated ginger during the last minute or so of simmering, which preserves some of the ginger's fresh heat.
Once the beef is cooked, I divide it all between a few bowls of rice. (Confession time: I didn't even cook this rice from dried. I used one of those precooked, microwaveable trays. Slightly mushier than fresh rice, but with all the liquid from the gyudon, it honestly makes little difference.) You can eat it as is, but I like to add a little pile of hot beni-shoga (pickled ginger), some sliced scallions, and a pinch of togarashi (Japanese chili powder).
I've never met a bowl of gyudon that couldn't be improved with a runny poached egg, either.
If you want to go all in, do it the Japanese way, with a raw egg broken on top and stirred in, tamago kake gohan–style. It's not for everyone, so I'll understand if you want to pass on it. I'll judge you only about as much as I judge people who don't like sauerkraut on their hot dogs.