Beef-uddlement Daniel's Broiler is proud of its beef. The popular local trio of steak houses recently issued a press release announcing that Daniel's "is the only restaurant to serve its customers 100 percent USDA Prime beef in the Seattle-area [sic]." The release also refers to "many of the local steak houses" that "still charge Prime prices" but "have taken Prime off some menu items in an effort to save money." These are substantive claims, to be sure. But what does "USDA Prime," a label administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, really mean? USDA grades—including the two highest, Prime and Choice—are unrelated to the health concerns surrounding beef. "Yes, it is totally [about] quality. Nothing to do with safety," said Kathryn Mattingly, spokesperson for the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Services division. Our next step was calling Daniel's local rivals to ask about their beef. "We serve USDA Prime," declared Ruth's Chris Steak House general manager Darin Danner. Exclusively? "Mmm-hmm." He added that the menu price differential between Prime and Choice is significant. "Prime is a considerable amount more expensive," he said. More than a few dollars extra per steak, in fact. So if the Choice-sold-at-Prime-prices phenomenon is real, the Daniel's release contains a serious allegation—not to mention the fact that their exclusive use of nothing but Prime may not be so exclusive after all. The USDA system doesn't even apply at El Gaucho. According to general manager Nicolas Kassis, the Belltown steak house is affiliated with Certified Angus Beef (CAB), one of many "branded beef programs" that provide an alternative to the federal grading scale. CAB is roughly equivalent to the top third of the USDA Choice grade, known as High Quality Choice. HQ Choice often rivals Prime in terms of flavor and general quality, and for certain cuts of beef, it can actually be the superior option. Bill Trudnowski of Consolidated Restaurants Inc., which owns the Metropolitan Grill, insists: "What makes the grade is the fat" (also known as "marbling"). Since a tenderloin filet derives more of its flavor from the meat than the marbling, using moderately marbled HQ Choice for such an item makes sense—which is why the Met does it. Every other cut on the restaurant's menu is Prime, Trudnowski says. Non-grade issues factor in, too; some restaurants buy meat in bulk and freeze it, while others use only fresh, and the grade system doesn't account for organic beef at all. In other words, offering customers the best steak for the money is more complex than Daniel's would have you believe; to reach some kind of resolution, we had to go to the source of the original statement. According to Lindsay Schwartz, president of Schwartz Brothers Restaurants (which owns Daniel's), the company did its homework before making that double-barreled declaration. When asked about the claim that Daniel's serves nothing but USDA Prime, Schwartz replied: "What we are saying is that we are the only major steak house in Seattle that does that." He added, "Those are the [restaurants] where we have done the research. And that is a fact." Regarding the notion that other Seattle steak houses charge Prime prices for Choice steak, Schwartz said: "I think by saying 'charging Prime prices' [we're] saying charging what we charge for Prime or, you know, what they're charging for Prime on other cuts on the menu that are Prime, and it's not like the price drops down on the item that isn't Prime." Huh? Luckily, USDA standards are much easier to understand than the issues that surround them. Learn more about the grading scale at www.fsis.usda.gov/oa/pubs/ingrade.htm. NEAL SCHINDLER Food and/or beverage news? E-mail Hot Dish at email@example.com.