Riding route 40 East out of Baltimore on a sizzling hot Sunday afternoon, “Charm City” drops away fast, giving way to patches of brittle yellowing grass and industrial parks. Out here, the road’s name changes along with its character, transforming from Orleans street to the Pulaski highway, a heat-shimmering four lanes of blacktop that seems baked onto the landscape as it wends its way on to Joppa, Havre de Grace and the Delaware border. Speeding down the road, my wife and I were on a pilgrimage. Rusty rural desolation aside, the Pulaski is hallowed ground, the pit beef highway, home to Baltimore’s signature take on the roast beef.
Chances are you haven’t heard of pit beef. In most cities, there is room for only one foodstuff to rule the roost, and in Baltimore, the unquestioned king is the blue crab. While pit beef waits on the sidelines, crabs get the fairs and festivals, the parades and press. “Maryland is for Crabs,” the bumper stickers say, and the cookbooks, t-shirts, shot glasses and cookbooks cluttering every Maryland gift shop and rest stop drive the message home.
A few home-town sons and daughters have tried to raise pit beef’s profile. John Waters, Baltimore’s cinematic poet laureate, put the humble sandwich front-and-center in his 1998 film Pecker, his savage love letter to the art world. That’s where I first heard of it: Memama, the main character’s delusional grandmother, splits her time between playing ventriloquist with a talking statue of Mary and brandishing slabs of meat from a pit beef stand in her front yard.
I always assumed that pit beef was one of John Waters’ semi-plausible bits of made-up terminology, like “dutch ovens” or “shopping for others.” A few months back, however, a random encounter with a picture of an overstuffed sandwich and a short Google search demonstrated that the mythical meat was a real thing, readily available in Baltimore.
Roast beef sandwiches are nothing new, and several towns lay claim to one permutation or another, but pit beef has a few characteristics that separate it from the herd. Basically a top round roast that is given a dry barbecue rub, allowed to marinate, then cooked on a grill, pit beef neatly tips its hat to Baltimore’s southern heritage. However, the accompaniments – rye bread or a Kaiser roll, a pile of fresh onions, and a heady smear of horseradish sauce – reference the city’s rich vein of Eastern European immigrants. Taken as a whole, the sandwich combines two very distinct spice profiles that rarely show up on a plate together.
And so it was that my wife and I found ourselves shooting down the Pulaski, headed for Chaps, the pinnacle of the pit beef pyramid. A real, honest-to-god restaurant with an enclosed dining room, a full kitchen and a pair of unisex bathrooms (which are, admittedly, located outside), it stands head and shoulders above the roadside shacks and food trailers that comprise most pit beef shacks. Hell, it even has t-shirts.
(Then again, lest it seem that Chaps has lost touch with its true pit beef roots, it’s worth noting that the place is located in the parking lot of a grimly utilitarian strip club, across the highway from an adult bookstore. Apparently pit beef success still carries a hint of grit.)
Chaps is definitely successful. Visiting on a sleepy weekend afternoon, my wife and I expected a short wait. Instead, we faced a packed dining room, filled with people still dressed in their Sunday best. Looking around, we wondered what could drag customers directly from a house of worship to the parking lot of a topless bar.
We soon found out. Pit beef is made with fairly tough cuts of meat, but Chaps softens the bite by slicing its roasts extremely thin, yielding a finished product that is pillow smooth, yet retaining the firm character and flavor of top round. The seared, crusty edges of the beef carry a sharp note of charcoal and spice, while the fluffy Kaiser roll holds everything together. A pile of onions, a smear of house-made horseradish and mayo “tiger sauce,” and we were on our way to pit beef heaven.
Not long after we got back home, my wife and I found ourselves facing down a pit beef craving. Unfortunately, Baltimore is a four-hour drive away, and spending eight hours round trip to get a sandwich seemed slightly problematic. On the bright side, there are plenty of pit beef recipes on the internet, although most seem to be derived from this one from The New York Times.
Even so, my wife and I find ourselves remembering Memama’s saying, “I tell all my lady friends: give a man a pit beef sandwich and he’ll be back for seconds.” And the road to Baltimore beckons.
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