Our first-time visitor to the landmark Shizuoka chain did plenty of homework first, but still had multiple shocks.

In Japanese, the word sawayaka means “refreshing,” evoking feelings of a light, pleasant sensation, the type you might get from a gentle breeze caressing your skin. So based just on its name, you might imagine that the restaurant chain Sawayaka is a collection of stylish cafes, where you sip chamomile tea while listening to the soothing sounds of a garden fountain.

In reality, though, Sawayaka is a place where your ears will be filled with the tantalizing sizzle of hot plates on which are cooking countless meaty meals of hamburger steak. Despite only having branches in Shizuoka Prefecture, Sawayaka has acquired legendary status with hamburger steak fans nationwide, so much so that it’s not unusual for the wait for a table to be hours long.

So on a recent foray into Shizuoka Prefecture, our Japanese-language reporter Ahiruneko and SoraNews24 founder Yoshio cleared out a block of their schedule to have dinner at a Sawayaka branch. They were prepared for a massive line, but they lucked out when their visit coincided with a massive rain shower.

▼ Sawayaka

▼ Yoshio in the Sawayaka (さわやか) parking lot, looking like he just took a shower himself.

Because of the downpour, not many people were willing to venture out for a restaurant dinner that night, and the staff actually outnumbered the customers when Ahiruneko and Yoshio walked in.

In preparation for this meal, Ahiruneko had consulted fellow SoraNews24 reporter and Shizuoka native Maro, who gave him some pointers on the best way to eat Sawayaka’s most popular menu item, the 1,265-yen (US$8.65) Genkotsu Hamburger Steak, so that’s what both he and Yoshio ordered. Ahiruneko got his first (but not his last) shock of the night when the server brought his knife and fork to the table.

More than cutlery, they looked like epic weapons he’d equip in a fantasy RPG to do battle with a powerful boss enemy.

He got his next surprise when the server brought his food, and he learned why it’s called the Genkotsu Hamburger Steak. Genkotsu is the Japanese word for “fist,” and rather than a modestly sized flat disc, the Genkotsu Hamburger Steak is a fist-sized sphere of meat.

This is also where Maro’s first piece of advice came in. The staff will ask you if you’d like them to cook your steak for you, and you should say “Yes, please.” They’ll then instruct you to hold your napkin up between the sizzling hot plate and yourself while they slice the Genkotsu Hamburger Steak in half and finish grilling the two pieces on the hot plate, with the sizzling sound and delicious scent sending your appetite into overdrive.

▼ Come to think of it, the reason why the knife/sword and fork/spear are so big is probably to give the server the reach they need to do the cooking while standing at the edge of your table.

Now it’s time for Maro’s tip number two. The server will then ask if you want them to add Sawayaka’s special house onion sauce, and you should again say yes, but only for half of your hamburger steak.

It’s tip three, Maro says, that’s the really critical one. Obviously, the plate is going to remain hot for some time. While that’s great for keeping your food from getting cold while you eat, it also means that the meat is going to continue cooking while it sites on the plate. This, Maro says, is a no-no, since letting the meat overcook will make the texture tough and damage the flavor. On the other hand, scarfing the meat down as quickly as you can is a waste. The Genkotsu Hamburger Steak is a meal to savor, especially if, like most Sawayaka customers, you had to wait a long time in order to get it. So what you should do, Maro says, is use your fork and knife to place your two pieces of hamburger steak on top of the vegetables, getting them out of the direct heat.

▼ This doesn’t do anything to keep the vegetables from overcooking, but let’s be honest – we ain’t here for the broccoli.

Oh, and the second piece of hamburger steak, the one we left without any onion sauce? Maro’s fourth, and final, piece of advice is to season it with salt and pepper only.

With all four items on the checklist complete, it was time for Ahiruneko to dig in and try Sawayaka’s legendary hamburger steak for his very first time! Excitedly, he picked up his knife…

…sliced off a morsel, and got his next shock of the night…

…by how rare the center still was!

Though the outside was thoroughly browned, the inside was so red it looked practically raw. The texture felt almost liquidy, and overall it reminded Ahiruneko of marugo tataki or negi toro, the minced tuna belly used in sushi…except that this was beef!

He rechecked his notes, though, and confirmed that he’d done everything exactly as Maro, a multi-meal veteran at Sawayaka, had instructed him to. And he couldn’t deny that the Genkotsu Hmburger Steak in front of him smelled delicious. He just wasn’t sure about how it looked. Remember, Ahiruneko and Yoshio were in Shizuoka on a work assignment, and it was the next day that their appointments were scheduled. This day was really just a transit day, so if Ahiruneko were to wake up the next morning with stomach cramps from eating such rare meat, Yoshio was going to really tear into him, wasn’t he? But on the other hand, Ahiruneko’s heart was nearly breaking at the prospect of coming all the way to Shizuoka and not eating Sawayaka’s famous hamburger steak.

Looking at Sawayaka’s website, he read that while many restaurants in Japan use a mix of pre-ground beef and pork for their hamburger steaks, Sawayaka prides itself on using nothing but 100-percent beef. Sawayaka also buys full cuts of beef and grinds the meat themselves, insuring that there are no low-quality trimmings or other miscellaneous non-meat bits mixed in with its hamburger steak, which put Ahiruneko’s mind a little more at ease.

Filled with conflicting emotions, Ahiruneko looked over at Yoshio, to see if his boss was also grappling with such culinary conundrums. Instead, he saw his boss’ cheeks filled with meat and a smile on his face as he half-moaned:

“It’s sooooo gooooood…”

That settled it. If Yoshio was taking the plunge, he couldn’t fault Ahiruneko for doing the same, could he? So Ahiruneko took a bite, and his reaction was:

“This is the most delicious hamburger steak I’ve eaten in my entire life.”

The thing that he couldn’t get over was just how good the meat itself is. Compared to a regular steak, hamburger steak is generally a cheaper meal, and at a lot of the hamburger joints Ahiruneko has been to, it’s the sauce that’s the star of the show. And make no mistake, Sawayaka’s onion sauce is great. The genius of Maro’s half-and-half advice, though, came when Ahiruneko tried the portion he’d left sauceless and added only salt and pepper to. It was amazing, with a juicy, almost sweet quality you’d never get with a normal steak. It was so good that it felt to Ahiruneko like he was devouring the very concept of meat itself, and the next time he goes to Sawayaka (yes, he’s already promised himself that he’ll be going back again someday), he’s tempted to add no additional seasonings at all to the Genkotsu Hamburger Steak.

Okay, so it tasted great in his mouth, but how did it fare in his stomach? Just fine. Both Ahiruneko and Yoshio woke up the next morning from their beef bliss-induced sound sleep with no stomach problems whatsoever.

Of course, as always with rare meat, the risk of digestive problems can’t be completely ruled out, and so the decision of whether or not to partake is one you’ll need to make for yourself. For Ahiruneko, though, his first trip to Sawayaka was perfect.

Related: Sawayaka location list
Photos ©SoraNews24
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[ Read in Japanese ]