Editor's note: This article was originally published Feb. 13. We're bringing it back this weekend in honor of National Sandwich Day (yep, that's a thing), which falls on Nov. 3.
NEW YORK (CIRCA) - Living in New York, high prices can become the norm. You’re paying $13 for a midday salad from the closest no-name lunch spot in your office building, a $54 bar tab might not even get you tipsy, and rent prices tend to come up as frequently in conversation as the weather.
When you hear about an $85 sandwich, you might pause for a moment, sure, but it’s too easy to dismiss it as another gimmicky trend that the city will have moved on from by the time the seasons change.
But at SakaMai, an $85 beef sandwich is rich not only with the decadent meat responsible for its unusual price tag but with the culture, customs, and history surrounding Japan’s world-renowned but often inaccessible Wagyu beef industry.
And when the New York City restaurant limits its offering to just one sandwich served each day, as intriguing as it might seem conceptually, its reasoning lies in the real-world limitations involved in obtaining the prized delicacy.
Most people outside of Japan have never had the opportunity to try Wagyu beef, but the mention of its name, or at least the name of a particularly acclaimed strain of Wagyu called Kobe beef, will often still bring to mind an impressive reputation.
Genuine Wagyu beef is an undeniably high-quality meat, but to many, a description saying simply that, although very complimentary, would be viewed as an almost absurd understatement. That’s because Wagyu is frequently named as the best beef in the entire world. People will pay hundreds of dollars to taste it. “Life-changing” is regularly used when talking about the experience of eating Kobe beef in Kobe, while others claim that trying Wagyu even once permanently ruined all other meats for them.
The most distinctive physical feature of Wagyu beef is its intense level of marbling, a term referring to the marble-like pattern formed by the visible streaks of intramuscular fat dispersed within the lean. Even somebody who has never once before heard the words "Wagyu” or “marbling” would immediately be able to notice that there’s something different about its appearance that sets it apart from the beef that’s found in the grocery store.
In all types of beef, the amount of marbling is a major contributor to both the texture and the flavor. When cooked at a high enough temperature, the fat begins to melt, which adds flavor to the meat and keeps it moist. Because of the crucial role that it plays with respect to the overall quality of the beef, marbling is one of the main criteria used in the USDA beef grading system. Prime beef has the highest level of marbling, followed by Choice and Select in that order.
So because of Wagyu’s uncommonly high fat content and genetic predisposition to marbling, the meat ends up with a soft, creamy texture and absolutely luxurious flavor, completely unique from any other type of beef. Further adding to the uniqueness of the meat, Wagyu beef fat has a melting point lower than human body temperature, so when someone says that it literally melts in your mouth, they’re not exaggerating, no matter how absurd the statement might sound.
Much like the USDA, the Japanese Meat Grading Association examines carcasses to determine an overall grade. Quality marbling is absolutely essential for achieving the highest grade awarded, A5.
When translated, the word “Wagyu” means “Japanese cow.” There are four specific breeds of cattle, all native to Japan, that are considered to be Wagyu: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn and Japanese Polled.
The strains of Wagyu are further broken down based on the prefecture in which they are raised. For example, Kobe beef can only come from the prefecture of Hyogo, of which the capital city is Kobe. (Fun fact: Since 1966, Japan has held “The Wagyu Olympics” every five years to determine which prefecture is currently producing the best beef.)
Because genetics are so integral to the Wagyu's famed marbling, meticulous records are kept to document lineage. All Wagyu are given an individual identification number and registered into a public online database upon birth, ensuring that their genetic line can be traced with absolute transparency.
To be considered full-blood, cattle must have a 100% Wagyu genetic line with no crossbreeding. Nearly all of the full-blood Wagyu population is in Japan, and two of the four breeds, the Japanese Shorthorn and the Japanese Polled, are found solely in Japan.
Although Wagyu were imported into the United States for a short period of time, many of the cattle were subsequently crossbred with American species. In addition, import restrictions and limitations and concerns about meat safety protocol have affected the supply of beef coming from Japan into the United States. Because of this, much of the “Wagyu” listed on restaurant menus across the U.S. isn’t full-blood, so diners aren’t actually experiencing an authentic representation of the delicacy.
But genetics alone aren’t enough to guarantee optimal levels of marbling.
In order to achieve high-quality beef, farmers must raise Wagyu with an incredible level of care and patience. Legend has it Wagyu live out their days in total luxury, drinking ice cold beers and receiving frequent massages, and while some farmers have spoken about employing such methods, that depiction isn’t universally accurate.
However, there are still very specific standards in place for raising the cattle, and accommodating their lifestyles involves a lot of time and money. Wagyu need to be raised in stress-free environments, and they’re fed a specialized diet. Individual care is typically given to each animal. Wagyu are also bred for around 30 months or longer, compared to the 22 months typical for U.S. cattle, further increasing the overall cost involved in raising them. So in order to make money from Wagyu, the farmers have to charge premium prices for the beef.
The combination of the meat’s limited availability and expensive price tag deters many restaurants from including Wagyu on their menus. And at SakaMai, it's the reason behind both the $85 price tag of the Wagyu Katsu Sando and the one order per day policy. SakaMai sources its beef from Japan’s Miyazaki Prefecture, an area known for exceptional cattle, in order to serve the highest grade, A5. That definitely doesn't come cheap.
The Wagyu Katsu sandwich at SakaMai draws its inspiration from both the decadent flavors of the beef and the popular Japanese street food that’s more often referred to as a “katsu sando.” While the most traditional form of the katsu sando involves a deep-fried pork cutlet, executive chef Takanori Akiyama chose to offer the Wagyu beef version as reflection of the current food trends in Tokyo.
Each step taken in the SakaMai kitchen to create the dish honors the classic Japanese preparation. The meat is first seasoned, then dipped into a batter and coated with flaky panko breadcrumbs. After spending enough time in the fryer to turn a delectable golden brown, the fillet is placed onto a piece of buttered, lightly toasted milk bread.
Sauce is an essential element of the katsu sando. While it typically calls to mind a tangy barbeque sauce, there are endless varieties across Japan, as different restaurants and even cities will create their own. At SakaMai, the katsu sauce is housemade.
Before the Wagyu katsu sando is served, the crusts are removed and it’s cut into six pieces.
If you’re looking to try genuine Wagyu without flying all the way to Japan, SakaMai gives you that opportunity.