My Family Craved a Taste of Home in America, and Fell in Love With Cheesecake
We moved to America -- the land of cheeseburgers and pizza and tacos -- in 1994, when I was several months old. I grew up as most immigrants, or child of immigrants, do: tiptoeing the line between the comforts of our native country’s culture in both cuisine and customs while simultaneously engaging with what it means to be “American” despite feeling foreign in a new land.
My mom is a champion. She took care of me and my two older brothers single-handedly while our dad worked overseas, despite the fact that the three of us were a ragtag team of menaces seemingly brought to this Earth to wreak havoc on her. For the most part, we ate Thai meals of sticky rice and salted beef jerky, porridge and pork floss, and barbecued chicken dipped in sweet chili sauce. But sometimes, thanks to the burnout accompanied by wrangling three kids, a trip to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal and some time away from cooking was warranted. The thing was, my mom didn’t really have a taste for Mickey D’s burgers, Taco Bell’s Mexican-inspired creations, or a cup of chili from Wendy’s. Back at home in Thailand, we primarily ate white rice with proteins, so even in my mom’s quest for convenience by way of fast food, she had standards for her cravings. And what she wanted was Yoshinoya.
Yoshinoya is a fast food chain out of Tokyo that specializes in bowls of gyūdon, or beef bowls. The very first Yoshinoya opened in 1899, so it’s safe to say it’s perfected this beefy Japanese comfort food with over 2,000 locations worldwide and 500,000 bowls sold daily.
“There's not a single microwave in our kitchens. All our meals are served in a bowl. Many fast food restaurants and QSRs serve their food between two slices of bread while we freshly prepare our bowls with our award-winning rice, a choice of one or two proteins and nutritious veggies,” Angella Green, the marketing director of Yoshinoya America, shared. “We offer a complete, home cooked-style meal.”
In the States, Yoshinoya also serves a myriad of other seemingly random items: teriyaki chicken, grilled tilapia, glazed shrimp, egg rolls, flan, and cheesecake -- delicious, indulgent cheesecake. While the stateside version of the chain may have a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to food, it was our go-to spot when cooking just wasn’t an option for my mom. At least we’d still get steamed jasmine rice and vibrant packets of pickled ginger. I dined on bowl after bowl of fatty slivers of ribeye stewed with sweet onions. I feasted on endless strips of the bright red and tangy ginger. And I ended every meal the same way: with a slice of the chain’s New York-style cheesecake.
You’re probably wondering why a Japanese chain would serve slices of New York cheesecake, sliced thin and packaged in little plastic containers. It’s something I didn’t question at the time because it just felt normal and routine: After every beef bowl, I had to have the endlessly creamy and subtly sweet dessert. When I would go to McDonald’s, I might have an apple pie or McFlurry. Frosties from Wendy’s were good, but I only got them in the summertime. And, yes, I did love Taco Bell’s caramel apple empanada which sadly no longer exists. But it was Yoshinoya’s cheesecake that has continued to feel mandatory, beef bowl after beef bowl. I found it to be one of the best desserts in fast food, something I always craved even as I got older and the trips to Yoshinoya with my mom -- like many of the best parts of my childhood -- faded.
Yoshinoya’s cheesecake, which has been on the menu since 1991, is sourced from a supplier called Jon Donaire, which happens to also supply Long John Silver’s strawberry swirl cheesecake. Whole cheesecakes in an array of flavors can also be purchased at Walmart, but there’s just something about having a slice following a steaming bowl of gyūdon that makes this cake taste all the better. It’s almost like the contrast of something so different -- succulent beef simmered in soy sauce, mirin, and daishi against the gentle sweetness of cheesecake -- that rounds out the entire experience. It is Yoshinoya’s best-selling dessert, and for good reason.
Beyond its flavor -- soft and cheesy with a buttery graham crust -- one of the reasons I long for Yoshinoya’s cheesecake is that it reminds me of childhood and time spent eating with my mom and brothers. Trips to Yoshinoya always felt like treats and a way for us, as a family, to dive into the never-ending world of American fast food, but without feeling too far from our roots as we spooned bite after bite of rice, beef, and sharp ginger into our mouths. Yoshinoya helped me to recognize the balancing act immigrants perform in a new land, the same balancing act that my own family performed.
We want to maintain tradition but experience the new, too. We want to hold on to our mother tongue but write in English that others may connect to as well. We want to pluck on traditional Thai instruments but also join marching band and play Vivaldi on the flute. And we want to indulge in beef bowls, but are satisfied -- no, excited even -- to have a slice of cheesecake, too.