Is Wagyu Beef Really Worth It?
I sat down with the self-proclaimed head of Japan's 'Wagyumafia' to find out.
All photos by the author.
The self-proclaimed head of the Wagyumafia transports beef in silver briefcases. He travels with three stone-faced security guards and has a concealed carry license for a katana. For years he had the internet scrubbed of his face, fearing the dark tentacles of Big Beef would end his clandestine wagyu evangelism by any means necessary.
Just kidding! Dressed in all black everything with a grey-streaked World Cup striker haircut, Hisato Hamada looks the part of a stylish movie mob boss, but the only blade he carries is a chef’s knife. The Japanese beef industry in Japan is notoriously cagey—it took him 10 years to break in—but today he represents what he believes to be the top .001% of farmers. Hamada fears nothing, except overcooked steaks.
The breadth of his Tokyo-based business is staggering, and includes a butcher shop, four restaurants, a culinary academy, and a distribution network for 20 farms. Plus, he’s about to expand his empire to New York City with a members’ only “butcher’s kitchen” restaurant which he calls a beef version of the fabled Tsukiji fish market. During the day they’ll sell wagyu retail; at night a meal will cost anywhere from $100 à la carte to $500 for an omakase menu, but it won’t be typical fine dining.
“When it comes to wagyu, a lot of places want you to sit down for four hours because the ingredients are so expensive,” says Hamada in an accent he picked up by spending half of his life in Australia, England, and the US. “But I love street food, so this will be freestyle. I can chargrill, make gyoza, takoyaki, steaks, anything.”
If you haven’t eaten Wagyu beef, your bank account is healthier for it. In steakhouses like RPM Steak in Chicago, the cheapest wagyu costs more than the most expensive filet mignon and is a fraction of the size, but the fat marbling is so intense the meat looks almost tie-dyed. Cattle farmers, chefs, and steakhouse high rollers believe the taste to be unparalleled, but, is it worth it?
The data suggest that diners think so. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association reports that sales of wagyu increased 334% from 2012 to 2017 (343,684lb to 1,164,168lb), but it’s still a tiny .05% of total beef sales. During the same time period, Prime sales also increased 356% to .4% of total sales. More American ranchers are raising wagyu breeds domestically, with registration in the American Wagyu Association increasing 400% over the past five years. Despite that growth, purists like Hamada claim that American Wagyu is a contradiction of terms.
“Wagyu literally means Japanese beef. It has to be born in Japan, raised in Japan, and slaughtered in Japan. Most of the time American or Australian wagyu is a hybrid. Terminologically speaking, it’s not wagyu,” says Hamada, who is an ambassador of Kobe, the largest wagyu brand name.
George Owen, executive director of the American Wagyu Association, disagrees. American bloodlines of wagyu date back to 1970 when four bulls were imported into the US, followed by several females in the ‘90s. Shortly thereafter, Japan deemed their cattle a national treasure and closed all exports.
“The American Wagyu Association registers several different levels of Wagyu. The fullbloods come directly from the original imports from Japan and have been DNA verified back through every generation,” says Owen. “The same base genetics used in Japan to produce their coveted Kobe brand are the same genetics that we use here in the US to produce Wagyu beef. Same cattle, different country.”
Part of Hamada's argument for Japanese supremacy comes from the meticulousness of his farmers. He’s visited 300 farms, only 20 of which met his standards. Calves begin their lives grazing pastures, then transition to grain formulas that include up to 15 ingredients, everything from olives to byproducts from Japanese breweries, but never any chemical additives that decrease the farming time. American producers like Rocking 711 Ranch in Victoria, Texas pride themselves on similar feeding regimens, but concede that the accelerated farming practices sometimes used in the U.S. do affect flavor.
“I have eaten Japanese-raised Wagyu beef as well as 100% fullblood Wagyu raised in the U.S,” says Jim Long, owner of Rocking 711. “As far as the taste, 100% fullblood Wagyu has a more buttery and soft mouthfeel. That said, not all 100% fullblood Wagyu raised by US producers is as good, because not all US producers finish their cattle for as long as is done in Japan.”
Most importantly though, Hamada carefully judges the character of his farmers. If they’re not good people, they won’t create the stress-free environment crucial to maintaining the integrity of the meat. (And that stress-free environment is taken seriously; farmers frequently massage the cows and play them classical music.) Fitting to Hamada's mafia moniker (and in true Portlandia fashion), he names most of the cows himself.
“I don’t farm myself, but I know the cows from day one. When the baby is born, I name it, that’s how much dedication I put in. I’m like the Godfather in a way,” he says.
Hamada speaks so passionately that it’s easy to get swept up in the hype. Personally, I appreciate the difference between grades of beef, but I also love barbecue, whose traditions stem largely from cast-aside cuts of meat. So when someone starts talking about cows named David Beckham, it sets off my bullshit alarm.
Luckily I had a chance to try the mafia-raised beef for myself. At the Windy City Smokeout in Chicago, Hamada served wagyu kebabs next to iconic barbecue dishes like Hometown Bar-B-Que’s colossal beef rib, 17th Street Barbecue’s magic-dusted ribs, and LeRoy & Lewis’s smoked al pastor. Hamada's team cooked up skewers of his wagyu for $10 a pop, fanning the binchotan charcoal non-stop to ensure the correct temperature.
I’m happy to report that the wagyu tasted fucking delicious. Sure, it was snack-sized, but each bite short-circuited my tongue. A few other festivalgoers I spoke with agreed: they loved it and didn’t need much more. Especially when for the same price you could buy a monstrous portion of some of the best brisket outside of Texas, smoked by Phoenix’s Little Miss BBQ just a few feet away.
I got the general idea from those four bites, but since I’m a serious investigative eater (and the mob likes to keep journalists happy), I had two more wagyu experiences in store.
The next night I attended a $125 late-night coursed dinner at Sushi-san featuring a miniature version of the absurdly expensive Wagyu sandwich that's probably been filling your Instagram feed. As Hamada stirs a ramen broth in the prep kitchen, I ask him the monetary value of the beef he’s about to serve. In true kingpin fashion, he tells me he’d have to ask his accountant.
In the dimly lit dining area guests are greeted with a fat-washed Old Fashioned and a postage stamp-sized piece of jerky. A huge custom sign Wagyumafia sign hangs over the open kitchen in the shape of a steak. The busy cooks scorch wagyu nigiri with blowtorches, then carefully stack each bite with caviar and uni. Hamada enters to applause and delivers a revelrous introduction that would sway even the staunchest skeptic. He’s a natural salesman, not a shadowy thug. A more fitting name might be the Wolf of Wagyu Street.
Shock and awe aside, good luck finding anything between two pieces of bread that tastes as good as the breaded-Wagyu sandwich. It’s staggering. The textures dance together: crispy panko, butter-soft beef, gently toasted bread. It’s impossible to deny that this beef is extraordinary—it sings in your mouth with a level of umami that numbs the mind and literally made my eyes roll in opposite directions.
“A lot of Japanese people think the sandwich is crazy,” says Hamada. “But everybody just shuts up once they bite it. It’s so obvious even my kids can understand, it has a comfort food flavor. What I’m doing is ingredient-driven, so I want to make very simple food that people don’t have to think about or study.”
A Wagyu-chasing couple seated to my left were in heaven. They follow Hamada on Instagram, flew in specifically for the event, and plan to visit Tokyo. They asked Hamada how to make a reservation at his restaurants and he told them to DM him.
Not everyone was quite as impressed. In the bathroom line, a woman whispered to me that she thought the whole event was overrated. The reservations sold out immediately and her friends were so drunk on the exclusivity that she didn’t feel comfortable admitting she just wasn’t a beef person and that this didn’t change her mind.
I was already a believer, but hadn’t yet enjoyed a proper wagyu steak, so two nights later I held my final test at RPM Steak alongside the ultimate skeptic, my father. He is the definition of a meat and potatoes guy. When I try to make him taste something unfamiliar, he responds that he’s 66 years old and doesn’t need to try anything new.
Dad ordered his typical New York Strip (28-day dry aged, 160z, $64). I went with a Japanese A5 Wagyu from the Miyazaki prefecture (“Wagyu Champion ‘07 & ‘12, $93, weight class unlisted). It wasn’t from Wagyumafia (they currently only distribute to Asia and Europe), but the waiter had a long story about its origins and flavor.
When the steaks hit the table, I thought my Dad was going to lose his shit. Naturally, his steak came as expected, a bulky oversized muscle with charred crust leaking just a hint of juice. By comparison, mine looked like a joke. Six slices of beef, millimeters thick, with a pea-sized clump of wasabi and a puddle of black garlic soy. In an incredible sign of restraint, my father didn’t say anything, but even I was shocked with portion envy.
According to Doug Psaltis, the executive chef of RPM Steak and the founder of the Windy City Smokeout who invited Hamada to town, most diners don’t mind the size.
“The smaller portions aren’t a turnoff; quite the opposite, really,” says Psaltis. “These portions allow guests the chance to try all these different types of exquisite Japanese beef that are extremely rich and decadent. One to two bites is really all you need.”
I stared down at my wagyu, carefully arranged on the plate to inspire triple digit Instagram likes. It was so rare it looked vulnerable, swirled with fat streaks as cloudy as the Milky Way. The Japanese measure fat density on an A1-5 scale (USDA Prime typically scores A3). This steak was graded a 5, put looked like a perfect 10. It was as marbled as, well, a marble.
Part of what’s so great about steak is the gluttony. My father’s strip looked endless. His massive first bite dwarfed two of my wagyu slivers. It filled his whole mouth, teeth ripping through tendon, a truly primal indulgence. My meat looked so thin and precious I could’ve sliced it with a fork. I prepared a dainty little bite the size of a Chiclet and moved it to my mouth.
I don’t usually curse around my dad, but let loose a “holy shit.” I hate to disappoint the skeptics, but this was the most flavorful bite of steak I’d ever eaten. It tasted sweet, like the very essence of beef. I felt a medically unidentifiable tingle throughout my arms, a feeling that also occurs whenever I overdose on fatty brisket. I typically need a half pound of barbecue to experience that same sensation, and this was only a nibble.
Clearly I was sold, but the real test was yet to come. I passed one slice of wagyu onto my father’s plate. It looked like a dollhouse version of his New York Strip. He raised the fork to his mouth and nearly swallowed the bite whole.
He liked it! He’s not one for tasting notes, but agreed that it did taste sweet, much different than a normal steak. When I asked if he would be consider ordering one for himself, he just chuckled.
I savored the rest of the wagyu, enjoying each bite, truly blown away. The wagyu steak surpassed my expectations. I felt perfectly content, feeling a beef high unlike any I’d experienced before. I offered to share the last piece with my Dad, but he politely declined and continued powering through his Godzilla portion. After a few more bites, he cut the remainder of his steak in half and kindly offered it to me out of fatherly habit (he’s always telling me to bulk up).
My stomach was already full, but staring at that thick hunk of beef still invoked a visceral reaction and triggered something primal that overrode my lack of appetite. There was no way I could turn it down.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.