Wagyu is phenomenally fatty beef, although many U.S. consumers who've tasted a steak bearing the label might not realize it.
Originally bred as draft animals, horned Japanese beef cattle were prized for their deep stores of energy, which translate into the marbling that many eaters find delicious. While “wa” means Japanese and “gyu” means cow, only four breeds are considered Wagyu by Japanese cattle ranchers: the Japanese Black; Japanese Brown, also known as Red Wagyu; Japanese Polled; and Japanese Shorthorn.
In 1975, two black bulls and two red bulls were shipped to the United States. The pace of Wagyu acquisition picked up in the 1990s, but the market dwindled in 2003, when worries about mad cow disease resulted in a Japanese ban on U.S. beef imports. Cut off from their primary customer base, Wagyu farmers started marketing the meat to Americans.
Without any regulations, though, the marketing claims sometimes overstated the essential Wagyu-ness of the product. Larry Olmstead last year explained in a story for Forbes, “Much of the Japanese cattle has been cross bred with domestic stock and diluted, often heavily, to intentionally produce a result more in keeping with the traditional texture and taste of American beef (and to reduce costs).”
As a British rancher recently told The Telegraph, “you just get yourself a herd of Angus” and a couple of vials of Wagyu sperm. Presto: Wagyu! Or, as the American Wagyu Association terms it, “Wagyu-influenced beef.”
“We can only encourage our members to market their beef products with confidence and truth in labeling that the consumer deserves,” the association's website laments.
Since 2012, the U.S. has permitted the importation of Japanese beef. But Japanese wagyu isn't for everyone: According to The Telegraph, some eaters are troubled by the Japanese technique of raising Wagyu cattle indoors and stoking their appetites with beer. And the 80 percent fat content doesn't lend itself to the burgers and steaks that Americans prefer.
But Japan isn't the only source of purebred Wagyu. “There are absolutely some very conscientious and high-quality farmers raising pure Japanese breed cattle in the U.S. who produce excellent beef,” Forbes reports.
In the eyes of the American Wagyu Association, the meat is better than excellent. Citing its tenderness and flavor, the association promotes 100 percent Wagyu as “a whole new level that's beyond prime.” Whether that's what a given restaurant is serving is up to the buyer to determine.
Michael's on the Alley (Wagyu beef tartare, $14)
Ted's Butcherblock sells Wagyu beef, which it describes as Kobe-style. That's a modifier the American Wagyu Association encourages its members to avoid, since kobe refers specifically to Tajima-gyu cattle (members of the Japanese Black family) raised in the Japanese prefecture of Hyogo.
Ted's Butcherblock roasts its wagyu and serves it sliced on a sandwich with caramelized onions, blue cheese, mushrooms and garlic aioli. For a sit-down presentation, try the hanger steak at Burwell's Stonefire Grill or kobe roll at O-Ku.