Having supplied top-tier restaurants with premium beef, pork and lamb for three generations, Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors — and third-generation butcher Pat LaFrieda Jr. — know a thing or two about good steaks. Coming to prominence during the early ’90s, after Mario Batali named the company sole meat provider to all of his restaurants, the LaFrieda empire has only grown exponentially since, expanding its dry-aging operations and crafting the custom-blended patties that headline New York’s most coveted hamburgers, from Shake Shack to Minetta Tavern’s iconic Black Label Burger.
We spoke with Pat LaFrieda Jr. about what to look for when buying a steak, judging quality on sight, and the underappreciated cuts you should be asking for.
Q: What information does someone need to convey to their butcher when ordering meat?
A: They first need to know what they’re looking for. You really need to get a little specific…. I’ve found that butchers like to engage and talk about what they have — different cuts and things like that. I think the key thing to look for is to make sure that the product is domestic. If it’s a domestic product, it’s most likely from a small farm that needs your business.
Q: In terms of quality-to-price ratio, what’s the best value for a cut of meat?
A: Prime beef is only three or four percent of what the nation grows. I’d say a high-end Angus Choice cut is probably the best one could get for their dollar.
Q: What do you think is the most underappreciated cut of beef?
A: I think it’s the chuck eye steak. Where the rib eye ends, it doesn’t actually end there — that’s just where the industry cuts it off. The next few steaks — and there are only two or three, depending on how thick you cut them — are chuck eye steaks. And the part of the rib eye that everyone loves, which is the rib eye cap, which has a little extra marbling and intramuscular fat, continues into the chuck eye about three or so inches. A lot of that just gets thrown into ground beef, but I think it’s the most underappreciated cut.
Q: What about the most overrated cut?
A: A fillet. You know it’s going to be expensive, you know it’s going to be tender, but unless it’s a Wellington or something where there’s a lot of extra flavor brought to it, it’s pretty plain and safe.
Q: In working with restaurants and selling direct-to-consumer, is there a cut of beef that you’ve seen increase in popularity recently?
A: The outside skirt steak, which I’ve been saying is my favorite for many years, has really risen. It’s something that, if you’re at a retail butcher shop, you want to ask for outside skirt. Most likely, they just have skirt, but that could be inside skirt, which doesn’t have the flavor or the tenderness of outside skirt.
Q: Is there a way to gauge the quality of a cut of beef simply by looking at it?
A: Sure. That has to do with intramuscular fat. The marbling in a steak is what’s going to determine its quality. Of course, you have Kobe and Wagyu, which go a little bit overboard. You can’t eat a whole steak from those because there’s too much fat. But USDA Prime, to me, there’s nothing better. It’s got the right amount of fat; it’s the best thing.
Q: What three pieces of gear should every steak lover own?
A: A six-inch boning knife, a 12-inch scimitar knife and a sharpening steel — they’re all essential for butchering and carving.