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Help explain the big deal with pit beef..

I don't want to step on anyone's toes or commit any blasphemy and I wholeheartedly plead ignorance on this but... what is the big deal with pit beef? I've seen a lot of DC hounds wishing they had pit beef from Baltimore. I saw when Bourdain visited Baltimore and they took him to a pit beef joint and outside of the salt on the bread it seemed to me like a fresh version of a roast beef sandwich (think Arby's but homemade). They even had the same type of sauces. So help enlighten me so that the next time I'm in Baltimore/Pikesville, I'll know what I'm missing. How much of it is the fact that it's iconic like.. clamchowder to Boston or Chili to Cincinnati?

Sorry if I offended anyone.

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  1. I didn't see the episode (thankfully, I'm sure) but I think you're confused about the roll with salt on then. I've eaten pit beef at Chap's, where he went, and have never seen salty rolls. Are you thinking of the weck rolls from the Buffalo part of the program?

    9 Replies
    1. re: baltoellen

      You may be right. Maybei t was just a kaiser roll.

      1. re: burgeoningfoodie

        A beef on weck is a roll with kosher salt and carraway seeds, good roast beef and horseradish. It's as simple as can be and amazing.

        1. re: reiflame

          I agree. While not wanting to take anything away from pit beef, I do think beef on weck rises to heights that few sandwiches do.

          1. re: baltoellen

            Beef on weck makes business trips to Rochester worthwhile. As do White Hots with the strangely wonderful mystery meat sauce. But that's food for another thread.

            1. re: Warthog

              Jimmy's in Herndon does a good Weck. It used to be my go-to before I found the cheesesteak.

              There's a Buffalo Nite coming up and Weck is being served from Charlie the Butcher (I'm assuming direct from Buffalo). buffalonite.org

      2. re: baltoellen

        Guy Fieri and Duff Goldman did a brief visit to Chaps on I think an Ace Of Cakes episode. Guy's favorite place for pit beef.

        1. re: monku

          no offense, but Guy Fieri sayin' that ain't sayin' much - he likes everything.

          1. re: hon

            Yeah I don't know about Guy's Big Bite, but he's almost the male equivalent of Ray-Ray as I call her.. If they swtiched their catchphrases, I think I'd get a good laugh.

            1. re: hon

              and no comment about the hack job Bourdain did on the Baltimore episode?

        2. I don't know that the mid-Atlantic region has any spectacular local variety of pit beef (as do Kansas City and North Carolina, to name to other very different widely-known regional versions).

          Nonetheless, good pit beef is so wonderful that it's worth seeking out wherever you go.

          IMO, the go-to place around here is any highwayside trailer cookery along Indian Head Highway in PG County.

          1. I don't think you're missing anything in your analysis. It's a simple, straighforward thing. Yes, a good pit boss can add to the experience by getting the degree of doneness just right for your order, slicing it thick or thin per your request, and by making sure the meat is moist and not all dried out, but in the end it's a beef sandwich - no more, no less.

            Why did the tradition of roadside stands and small shops selling such sandwiches develop in the Baltimore area to a degree that one doesn't see elsewhere? I have no idea, though it might be an interesting story for a food historian to research.

            I moved here from the Midwest, so I can't say if there's some deeper significance to pit beef that leads locals to love it so, but I think it's just a matter of people growing up enjoying it. If this was Boston, I suppose that we'd be wondering "What's the big deal with lobster rolls?"

            Personally, I like a good pit beef sandwich, with lots of raw onions and maybe some horseradish or hot sauce, but I don't think there's any special insight you're missing. It is what it is. If you like a good beef sandwich, pit beef is a nice version.

            Maybe a local can provide further input based on growing up eating pit beef.

            4 Replies
            1. re: Warthog

              Thank you for the insight and that brings to mind a nother question or two. What is pit beef vs. brisket vs. roast beef? What section of cow is it? I guess the difference or similarities between the meats might add to it.

              1. re: burgeoningfoodie

                I don't have suffcient knowledge of the cuts used in pit beef, so I'll defer to somebody with the real facts rather than speculate. I doubt that it's brisket, though I could be wrong. Typical "roast beef" is not done with brisket.

                If you're comparing Baltimore pit beef to Central Texas style beef, or many of the other variants around the U.S. the major difference aside from the cut of meat is probably the smoke. Texas beef is usually done over a fire of post oak or maybe mesquite. Other parts of the country have their own favorite wood, usually reflecting what's local to the area.

                Again, I'm not a pit beef expert, but my impression is that Baltimore pit beef does tend to be "low and slow" over an open fire, but I'm not sure if it's always a wood fire, or if it's done in a way that focuses on wood smoke for flavor. I hope that somebody with more expertise than I can chime in on the how and why details of Baltimore pit beef.

              2. re: Warthog

                I lived in Baltimore for years ('74-'01) and I never knew pit beef was a Baltimore tradition. Is that recent?

                1. re: MartinDC

                  To be honest, it's more a B'more County tradition than a city one. The highest concentration of spots are along Pulaski Hwy (Route 40) northeast of town towards Edgewood. But my fave is in B'more County west of town -- Pioneer Pit Beef.

              3. Pit Beef is usually top round and is a grilled meat as opposed to a smoked meat, it's not barbeque at all. This will help:

                6 Replies
                1. re: hon

                  Warning Will Robinson! DANGER! DANGER!

                  I respectfully bow out before this turns into a debate about the proper definition of "barbeque". I'm not going near that topic.

                  1. re: Warthog

                    BBQ is smoked low and slow over an indirect fire, pit beef is grilled directly over an open flame so it's not BBQ at all. I think not knowing WTF you are talking about and yet commenting is the true danger.

                    1. re: hon

                      I am as happy as anyone that we now have Web sites to immediately provide the universal definition of a word. They're certainly useful for such important subjects like pit beef.

                      But I think Warthog was being lighthearted and noting that people actually debate the definition of "barbeque." I think he was making a playful comment that someone who even raised the subject might get flamed by partisans saying that he doesn't know WTF he is talking about. I think he was right.

                      Perhaps Obama could invite the barbeque partisans to settle their differences over beer at the White House. I'd vote that it be catered by Pioneer Pit Beef.

                      1. re: HowChowBlog

                        You would have to have seen the Baltimore Seafood thread to understand why he said what he did.

                        1. re: hon

                          Um, no, Hon, he wouldn't.

                          HowChowBlog was spot on in his interpretation of the intent of my post.

                          The definition of BBQ is one of those things that everybody thinks they have the incontrovertible answer to (with references). The unfortunate difficulty is that those definitions (or the validity of the references) are seldom universally agreed to. In my experience, debates over what it or isn't BBQ tend to go on until blood flows or the beer is gone, whichever comes first.

                          Regardless of the context in which the matter comes up, it also has the tendency to completely derail whatever the original discussion was about prior to the first reference to the "real" definition of BBQ.

                          I'll let others fight that battle - it tends to be "sound and fury, signifying nothing", to steal a line.

                  2. re: hon

                    I always ask for just White Bread not a kaiser, and definitely have to have raw onions and horseradish. My favorite used to be Big Al's in Essex but they have new owners and have not tried it since they took over. Chaps on Route 40 east in the parking lot of a strip club is the place I usually go.

                  3. Well I have lived in many places and when I arrived to this area I was also curious about the "pit beef". I have tried it in several different places hoping for improvement but I can't say that there is anything really special about it.

                    The poster who said they use the beef round in their pit beef just answered my question as to why the stuff is so damn dry no matter if you order it rare. The round cut is the leanest of them all (comes from the leg portion which is in constant use and therefore so lean) and without fat marbled throughout, you will never get a juicy result. If you want good roast beef, you need to do a sirloin roast - Big beefy flavor and some good fat to provide some tenderness and moisture.

                    Brisket comes from the breast area and is slow cooked either by braising, smoking etc) It is the cut that is used for corned beef.

                    Nevertheless, our local place in Edgewater is quite good, but only after adding coleslaw, onions and horseradish sauce.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: BontheC

                      I get an awesomely juicy rare pit beef sandwich every time at the Canopy in Ellicott City. I usually hit it around noon or a little before and never ask for anything warmer than medium rare. In answer to the OP; a good pit beef sandwich speaks for itself and demands no further explanation.

                      1. re: flavrmeistr

                        Pit beef at the Ellicott City Canopy is great.

                    2. The best part of this topic is it has been gone over before right here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/556568
                      Pit beef may be offered in a lot of places, but compared to a good beef brisket, or roast beef sandwich the big diff is the charcoal burt rim of the pit ham or beef slices.
                      A fair example is offered at the JFX market on sundays. But they dont have rolls, they use sliced bread. But all in all read the posted URL on ChowHounds about Chaps Pit Beef. Then go find out what all the noise is really about.

                      1. Burgeoningfoodie - I think other commenters have pretty much summed up what pit beef is (and what it isn't ?) so here are some photos and descriptions of a few of the local pit beef places favored by some local chowhounds. Maybe they will help steer you to these places next time you're in and around Baltimore.
                        Chaps, Bull on the Run:

                        And Canopy: http://thisisgonnabegood.blogspot.com...

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: crackers

                          Went to Expressway in Odenton/Ft Meade for first time, as I was at BWI on way back to DC. A good version of pit beef, and if I go again, will try the bulldog - sausage wrapped in beef and cheese, with onions or peppers.

                        2. Honestly, I think the cost:taste ratio has a lot to do with it.

                          When you get a good pit beef sandwich, the fact that you only paid 5 bucks for it, makes it taste even better.

                          I'd take a Pioneer beef over most of the sandwiches in the DC Metro (excepting City Deli and Breadline)

                          1. if you dont like it then its not a big deal. just because everyone else likes it doesnt mean it has to be your favorite.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: elegantelliot

                              Yeah I mean I'm from the south and though Cole Slaw isn't necessarily a southern thing. I can't stand it.

                            2. I made the following comments yesterday. And fellow chowhound, Dennis S was kind enough to direct me to this more current thread. So I thought I would re-post my first experience with pit beef here:

                              I've lived in Maryland all my life and had never heard of pit beef until I saw Guy Fieri's coverage of Chaps. Go figure. Before making the trek up to B'more to try it, I wanted to get the truth from the Chow Hounds. After reading the reviews, I instead drove up to Expressway today. I was really hopeful between these reviews and the recommendations on Yelp.

                              I have to say, I was disappointed and I'm not likely to make the 30 minute drive again for it. I ordered both the beef and the turkey for comparison's sake. Both needed some serious doctoring. The beef was incredibly dry and the turkey was reminiscent of the luncheon meat I can get from the prepackaged deli meats section of the grocery store. I was never asked how done I would like my beef and I forgot I had read here that I had a choice. I would've preferred their version of rare as opposed to what I brought all the way back home. I wanted so much to like this place. On a positive note, the staff was very friendly and I enjoyed the corn nuggets.

                              I'm a Marylander who wants to know, what is the hype about pit beef? Can anyone offer a clue?

                              NOTE: Thanks to this thread I think I'll pass on the pit beef. I can roast a more tender, flavorful, and moist piece of round at home in my oven. I challenge the pit beef experts to change my mind if I am wrong.

                              8 Replies
                              1. re: MScribe

                                Pioneer Pit Beef is one heckuva sandwich by any standards. It tastes like roast beef that has been smoked. Best served rare or medium rare at the most. It is unique to Baltimore in that there is a pit beef culture there. But if you had a dry sandwich, it's because you didn't go to Pioneer.

                                But please don't take it home. Eat it on the spot!

                                1. re: Steve

                                  Maybe I'll try Pioneer or Chaps. If I had received a sandwich that look anything remotely close to those pictured on the sites referenced here, I would've been more likely to have enjoyed my first pit beef experience:


                                  What I got looked much more like beef jerky and you cannot convince me that it transformed that much from the restaurant kitchen to my home.

                                2. re: MScribe

                                  Everybody has some I loved it too, or God I hated it, responce to someone else's taste. Like Philly Cheese Steaks. Or best BBQ.[explosive toppic] Say Texas Brisket and the earth moves.
                                  Inner city Baltimore has "Fried Trout" shops aplenty, but they dont serve trout. But what the hey. I live in DC, and roam up to Baltimore every week or so, and over the years have never purchased a pit beef without being asked, "how would you like it, rare / Medium rare / well done? This is where you participate by picking one of the three selections. It does make a big difference. Just as much as where you go to get the sandwich. And yes, you add on the stuff YOU like, tiger sauce, salt, etc. Notice many dont like places others praise? Others rave about crabs, I dont get it. But Im not looking for someone that does to convince me to change my mind. It is a signature, Pit Ham, or Beef, like crabs, food stuff of charm city. Being from Maryland and not liking it, is Ok. Many there cant stand crabs either.

                                  1. re: RobertM

                                    Robert - Great way to explain it. I have never understood the whole Philly Cheese Steak thing. I think you can get them down here just as good. But I'm not from Philly, and I'm not a passionate about them as a local would be. I do understand what Scribe was saying though, they can be dry from there unless specified. And thanks for telling me about the half smokes!!! I have fallen in love with them. My wife doesn't get it...she says it's just like a sausage on our grill....I disagree....It's my new favorite. I'm hooked. You are like the halfsmoke dealer...."come here kid, try this....it's ok" LOL.......those halfsmokes take me back to my childhood.....I owe you one. After extensive research I've decided the grilled green peppers and onions with mustard are my favorite. BTW....do you know where you can buy halfsmokes? I know BKMillers down in Clinton sells them, but that's a bit of a hike for me. And you are missing the boat on crabs......but it's a Maryland thing...LOL

                                    1. re: cb1

                                      You will find half smokes in DC at the Eastern Market. Start with the Mangers brand. The natural casing makes em snap when you bite em. Or try to find the Briggs brand, or Hebrew National Polish in local stores. I don't know what brand Express Beef sells, but if we are anywhere near by, we drive like Zombies to get em.
                                      The whole pit beef, or half smoke thing is about food you get on the road.
                                      Tex ting while driving is breaking the law in most states, but munching and chewing will only get you a "Man where did you get that" from cops.
                                      Happened to me in California a month or so ago.
                                      Local stuff you get when you are in that area. Like Red Rooster fried chicken in Damascus. A hole in the wall that is just down right awesome. Or Chubbies BBQ near the PA boarder. Then there is great Pho when in Arlington or northern VA.
                                      You know, if you fiind a food treat, post it here for the rest of us to savor.

                                      1. re: RobertM

                                        Our local stores don't carry any brand of half smokes. Or I didn't think so. But this morning, after asking, I found at our local SFW Capitol Half Smoke Sausage. 2.50 for five. Guess what's for lunch. Although my nieces are coming over, so I may take them for lunch at Expressway, they would love the snow cones.

                                        1. re: cb1

                                          SFW stores carry different stuff in different locations. So cant say about the quality of the smokes, but $2.50 seems like a heck of a deal.

                                  2. Pit beef is a slow smoked bottom round cut of beef sliced thin. It produces a smoky, tender, delicious sandwich. Treat it like steak; less done is better re medium rare. Traditionally served on a Kaiser roll and dressed with horseradish or barbecue sauce or tiger sauce, topped with sliced onions and/or pickles if you wish. Beef on a Kummelweck bun is a slow oven roasted beef served au jus on a softer bun encrusted with caraway seeds and kosher salt. Horseradish, pickles and onions are also added if desired. Either way, if you like beef, you can't go wrong with either. If cooked correctly, both melt in your mouth but both are mostly unique to their home cities: pit for Baltimore and beef on 'weck to Buffalo.

                                    10 Replies
                                    1. re: bison77

                                      Its inexpensive and good I always try to stop by Chaps when I am up in B-more

                                      1. re: agarnett100

                                        You should really try Pioneer if you're going to Baltimore. Way better than Chaps.

                                        1. re: Dreamworks

                                          Thanks for the suggestion whats the address?

                                          1. re: agarnett100

                                            By Security Square Mall. Exit 18. Yellow House. Bout the 1600 Block of N Rolling Road. Johnnycake Rd & N Rolling Rd. Can't really miss it...

                                            2 Sammwiches are good for 1 person imo. Med Rare. Don't need nothing but some salt on it. Amazing

                                            Chaps = Poop imo. But to each his/her own

                                          2. re: Dreamworks

                                            Heartily second Pioneer, but I haven't had Chaps.

                                            1. re: Dennis S

                                              Oh you got to try it Dennis, just for the sake of trying it. Mos Def. Don't listen to me. I will say equal amounts of good and bad about places, sometimes more bad than good lol.

                                              But seriously go try CHAPS!!! Just do it! And report back here :)

                                              1. re: Dennis S

                                                Actually what I meant by Chaps being Poop, was not the quality of the food, just in comparison to Pioneer. Pioneer is tastier imo. I should of made that clearer. I just had Pioneer on mind since I was giving directions

                                                1. re: JamesPapa

                                                  I have not had either, but there is at least one hound that I respect very much who loves Chaps. I'm not sure if the backlash is because of their tourist guide/Food Network cred or because they really aren't that good.

                                                  1. re: JonParker

                                                    Beef-a-lo Bob on Mountain Rd in AA county is my favorite pit beef. Worth the ride.

                                                    1. re: BaltoMike

                                                      Man O Man Beef-a-lo Bob is very good.