Every product and service is in a constant battle to differentiate itself from the competition, and convince the public that it stands above the rest. We’ve gotten so used to this in TV advertising and other forms of marketing that we hardly even notice these claims anymore. A fast food commercial might show us a perfect picture of a hamburger, but we’ve all been to those places, and we all know the difference between advertising and reality. The advertised version of the product is carefully arranged, decorated and photographed by a team of professionals — and the ingredients they use for the photo shoots aren’t even necessarily edible!

There may even be one or two steakhouse chains who employ these tactics, and although this is simply how the game is played when big advertising budgets are involved, steak is one cuisine we think should never be misrepresented!

In particular, those advertisements make us think about what really matters when it comes to steak. When it comes down to brass tacks, what makes a really good steak? What’s the one element that you can’t live without, if you want to have an exceptional steakhouse experience?

There are a few possible answers: The experience and skill of the chef, the way the steak is prepared, the sides and drinks that go along with the meal, and the service and atmosphere. But before all of these important elements, there’s one thing that stands alone as arguably the most important of all: The source of the steak.

Does it matter? Yes. If you ask any steak aficionado or steakhouse chef, they’ll point to the source of the beef as a supremely important indicator of quality. A great chef and a great steakhouse can make a decent meal out of a second-rate cut of beef, but at the end of the day, the limitations of the steak itself will be obvious. It will be too tough, or will lack flavor, or be too dry. A lot of things can and do go wrong with the quality of the meat is low.

What are the best sources for steak? There are many great source, depending on where you live and what’s available in the area. Local grass-fed cuts of beef can be incredible, and many steakhouses have close relationships with these local cattle farmers because they trust the quality of the beef, and prefer to support local business.

But local doesn’t always necessarily mean better. USDA Prime is the qualification to look for if you’re ordering American beef off the menu. USDA Choice can also be very good, but Prime is the indicator of top quality. There are also many excellent imported beefs from Japan (in some cases the beef itself is important, and in others, Japanese cattle are raised here in the USA) and other parts of the world.

In fact, the source of your steak is one of the most interesting things about the steakhouse experience, and knowing something about the source gives your experience an added dimension. So the next time you visit your local steakhouse, ask about the source! And if you’re unable to get much information, consider a different establishment next time around.