The dessert course at meat master Kentaro Nakahara’s Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara — the essential three-year-old grill-focused restaurant on the ninth floor of an unassuming office building in Tokyo’s Aoyama neighborhood — isn’t green tea mochi or a melon wedge. It’s a fat hunk of panko-crusted, prized top-scoring A5 wagyu tenderloin that’s fried and served between two thick, crustless cushions of pillowy white bread, sealed with butter and a rich tomato jam.
It’s unclear who was the first to elevate wagyu beef, one of the world’s priciest proteins known for its impeccable fatty marbling, into the category of not-so-everyday lunch. But the wagyu katsu sando — as it’s called in Japan — has been Instagram bait for at least the last four years since Nakahara, the chef many credit with cooking some of Tokyo’s very best wagyu beef, began serving it to regulars as an off-menu special at Sumibiyaki Shichirin, the now-shuttered protein palace he operated for nearly 13 years before his current engagement.
In the last two years or so, a number of highly regarded Japanese chefs have adopted the dish, adding their own twists — with some making the steak sandwich a daily option, others reserving it for those in the know. And now the wagyu katsu sando is finding its way to America.
Over the last three months, at least seven chefs across the country have slapped bread around this prized protein. One of the first was Daniel Son of LA’s Kura, who, back in October, launched a Katsu Sando-branded pop-up within his sushi-centered West Hollywood restaurant, serving (among other sandwiches) a $70 A5 wagyu katsu sando. Meanwhile, Sam Clonts, who heads up the kaiseki-style tasting counter at New York’s Uchu and is a self-proclaimed fan of the sandwich’s “brilliant simplicity,” added the dish to his $200 tasting menu in October.
Wagyumafia, the two-year-old members-only eatery in Tokyo’s Akasaka neighborhood, had been planning to open a wagyu butcher shop in San Francisco for over a year — it would also offer a $180 wagyu cutlet sandwich. Now co-owner Hisato Hamada confirms that he scratched Bay Area plans in favor of a first outpost in New York City, slated for later this year or 2019.
Thanks in part to social media, and America’s ongoing fascination with all things Japanese, the wagyu katsu sandwich is poised to be the next hottest trend in luxury lunching — and Instagramming. Below, all the glorious details you need to know.
What is it?
Wagyu is a highly prized and pricey type of Japanese beef celebrated for its richly fat-marbled, tender, buttery-tasting flesh. In order for beef to be wagyu, it must come from one of four breeds: Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled, Japanese Shorthorn, or Japanese Black. Wagyu is scored on its quality, with A5 being the highest grade. Katsu is the Japanese word for a cutlet, an ingredient that has been coated in breadcrumbs (usually light and airy panko) and, typically, fried. Sando is the Japanese nickname for a sandwich: The cutlet is commonly served on crustless white bread, and sometimes that bread is made with Hokkaido milk. Usually the bread is spread with a chef’s desired sauce. Some chefs assemble their sandwich in a box.
Nakahara makes a tomato puree with a touch of sugar, and spreading that on each side of toasted Maison Kayser white bread along with a bit of butter. He coats his A5 wagyu tenderloin in house-made panko breadcrumbs (“it has to be fresh and [have] no brown” parts, he warns) then he briefly fries the cutlet in rice oil.
Meanwhile, chef Yasuhiro Inoue, of Wagyumafia’s newly launched cutlet sandwich-focused outpost in Nakameguro (Wagyumafia currently counts three Tokyo locations), offers sandwiches built from various wagyu cuts, ranging in price from approximately $9 for ground beef to $180 for chateaubriand. The sandwich’s white bread is extra soft and fluffy, while the house sauce combines Kamebishi soy sauce from Kagawa and Fuji vinegar from Kyoto, along with 10 undisclosed spices. There’s also an off-menu soy-wasabi sauce and a fermented red-pepper sauce.
In the U.S., most chefs construct their sandwiches in a similar manner, with unique tweaks. For example, Clonts makes a Hokkaido-style milk bread, which he toasts over binchotan (prized Japanese charcoal) before assembling the sandwich, while Son bakes a honey milk bread, which he does not toast. “I like the texture sequence to be fluffy, crispy, juicy in one bite,” he explains. While Son references Nakahara and Wagyumafia as leaders in marbled meat, he says that his inspiration stemmed from the eight months he spent at Tokyo’s three-Michelin-starred RyuGin. After late nights at work, he’d typically hit FamilyMart (one of Japan’s outrageously good convenience stores) for cold packaged katsu sandwiches. “They were delicious,” he says, “but I always told myself that one day I’d make them fresh.”
Back in New York, SakaMai pairs its steak with an “umami butter,” which contains chicken fat and koji (the mold used to make sake), while San Diego’s the Grass Skirt makes a curry aioli that’s flavored with orange and mustard.
There’s also the wagyu sando, which is the wagyu katsu sando’s cousin. The wagyu sando involves a similar cast of characters: wagyu, white bread, and a special sauce. The major difference here is that the beef is not breaded and fried.
Why is it so expensive?
Wagyu farmers believe that keeping their pampered cattle happy is imperative for the animal to ultimately yield excellent-tasting beef. These farmers care for the animals around the clock, feed them a special diet, give them massages, and some even play music for them. The amount of money a farmer invests to raise a single animal (which is usually slaughtered before it is 30 months old) translates into the cow’s final price, and that cost is eventually passed along to the customer.
Many Japanese chefs have relationships with specific farmers in various parts of the country and source their wagyu based on the quality of that farmer’s past animals, as opposed to simply buying from a known region, like Kobe or Miyazaki.
I am going to Japan. Where should I try it?
In Japan, you can get wagyu katsu sandos and wagyu sandos at places like Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara, Wagyumafia, Kawamura, Yoroniku, Jambo, Cossott’e SP, Ushigoro, and Takazawabar. Some are on the menu, others are word-of-mouth off-menu orders.
Sander Siswojo, the graphic designer behind popular food-focused Instagram @Palatism, has tried more than half a dozen of Tokyo’s wagyu sandos, and he explains that just like any food genre, each preparation has its strengths. While he describes Shima’s wagyu sando, built with three to four layers of steak, as “very satisfying,” he believes that “Nakahara uses the highest-quality wagyu.” Meanwhile, Kawamura is known for “shimofuri, or highly marbled, wagyu beef steak,” and its sandwich is one of the priciest, running between $70 to $90 — still less than Wagyumafia’s top cut.
Siswojo cites the members-only Wagyumafia as the best place for sandwich options at various prices, while Yoroniku “serve[s] the lightest, softest, and airiest wagyu katsu sando,” adding that those are not words usually associated with beef.
I am not going to Japan. Where should I try it?
In New York, you’ll find wagyu sandos at Uchu and SakaMai, as mentioned. Uchu’s A5 Miyazaki ribeye katsu sandwich is part of the restaurant’s $200 tasting menu, while SakaMai’s 6-ounce A5 Miyazaki filet katsu sandwich costs $85, and chef Takanori Akiyama makes only five daily. From February 5 to February 28, as part of the cafe’s Kyushu menu-themed month, coffee and sake bar Hi-Collar will also debut a wagyu katsu sandwich, offering five per day, made from less than 2 ounces of Kagoshima wagyu, lightly seared and priced at $28.
Over in Boston, chefs Ken Oringer and Tony Messina at Uni have a less traditional, open-faced shaved A5 wagyu toast, with meat sourced from Miyazaki and Chiba. The chefs allow guests to customize the dish, choosing their desired amount of wagyu, priced at $30 per ounce. Meanwhile, Kobo, the Japanese concept within Maryland’s Sushiko, offers an A5 Miyazaki strip loin wagyu katsu sando as part of its $160 kappo tasting menu.
On the West Coast, Kura’s 5.5-ounce A5 Miyazaki chateaubriand wagyu katsu sando runs $70 in LA, and finally, chef Brian Redzikowski’s iteration at San Diego’s Kettner Exchange, which is made from either Kobe or wagyu-inspired beef raised in Ohio, counts 5 ounces at $24.
For more on eating wagyu in Japan, check out this episode of The Meat Show: