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Aug 7, 2009 10:09 AM

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).

      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.