Why You Should Think Twice Before Ordering A Wagyu Beef Burger

The crème de la crème of beef, wagyu beef is a delicacy meant to be savored, morsel by morsel. It is one of those precious main courses that doesn't need much to enhance the taste — its buttery texture and decadent umami flavor are enough to bewitch your palate.

The name "wagyu" literally translates to "Japanese cow", and the beef always comes from a special breed of cattle native to Japan — but there are a handful of restaurants in the United States that serve it. Wagyu is most popularly enjoyed as a steak. "To me, an ideal wagyu steak would feature the top blade cut, cooked medium rare, with some greens to balance the fattiness of the beef and a glass of light-bodied red," chef Andrea Spagoni told Michelin Guide. Japan National Tourism Organization seconds that. 

Aside from grilling it like regular beef steaks, wagyu can also be prepared using grilling methods like teppanyaki and yakiniku. The Japanese also enjoy it in hotpots like sukiyaki and shabu shabu, or sear it to make nigiri-zushi. One unusual way of eating wagyu is by grinding it up into burger meat, but in the United States, restaurants often have wagyu burgers on the menu — and they usually cost a pretty penny. This seems pretty cut and dried given that wagyu is one of the most expensive meats in the world, right? Here's why you should think twice before ordering a wagyu beef burger in America.

Wagyu in America might not even be real

In 2010, the USDA banned the import of all Japanese beef to the United States. As journalist Larry Olmsted pointed out in an article for Forbes, all restaurants in America that claimed to sell the most coveted Japanese wagyu, Kobe beef, during that time were a sham or, as Olmsted aptly coined it, "faux-be beef."

As of 2012, the ban had been lifted, and as of 2018, nearly 600 pounds of Kobe beef was imported to the United States. Given the limited import quantity, you'd be hard-pressed to find an authentic wagyu burger in your local restaurant. As of 2022, less than 20 restaurants served genuine Kobe. The main takeaway is that just because a restaurant slapped the word "Kobe" or "wagyu" on their menu doesn't mean they are selling genuine stuff.

Wagyu and Kobe born, raised, and slaughtered in Japan are purebred and have to meet strict quality and score criteria. In America, you are more likely to find crossbred wagyu beef. It can be hard to distinguish real wagyu from fake, especially if one has never had it before, but a surefire way to make the distinction is to check the raw cut for fat marbling. Real wagyu beef has distinct fat marbling that looks like white veins across the meat, which is what gives wagyu such a rich flavor. Without the ability to verify, the price of a "wagyu" burger in the U.S. might not be worth it.