This story first appeared in Bill Addison’s brand-new newsletter “Notes From a Roving Critic.” Subscribe now to keep up with Eater’s roving critic on the road.
It’s a joke in my family that whenever I step off the plane in Baltimore, my hometown, the first thing I want is crab: steamed crabs, crab cakes, crab dip, cream of crab soup, crab fluff (a battered deep-fried crab cake), crab imperial — crab something. This past September I wrote a story about returning to Maryland to eat as much of its signature food as I could handle. I hadn’t spent over a week in the Baltimore area during the summer since I was a kid. That trip home fulfilled a deep longing, one I didn’t even realize I’d had, to become reacquainted with my complex, beloved city.
Winter, though, is not for Maryland crab. Restaurants may ship in crabmeat fresh from states along the Gulf coast (particularly Louisiana and Texas) or from overseas, but Chesapeake crabs burrow and lay dormant in the colder months.
But other Maryland-specific foods can be had this time of year. Like pit beef sandwiches. In food and travel articles it’s often referenced as Maryland’s answer to barbecue. I can follow this line of thinking, though I grew up eating these sandwiches, and no one I knew ever put them in the same category as, say, smoked ribs. Pit beef was pit beef. The recipe is typically top round roast grilled over charcoal; sliced to order into a thin, jumbled pile; and served on a Kaiser roll or maybe white bread. The classic condiment for these sandwiches is horseradish sauce, though sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce had also slipped into the mix by the 1980s.
Pit beef’s origins are muddy. Baltimore food writer Richard Gorelick did some digging a couple of years ago and found few references for pit beef before the 1970s, when the dish emerged as a popular item sold from stands centered around Pulaski Highway (also known as Route 40), a sometimes forlornly industrial stretch that leads to the city’s northern suburbs. I wonder if Marylanders didn’t just initially refer to this creation as a roast beef sandwich, and the term “pit beef” was coined later as a snappier marketing moniker.
However they were invented and whatever they might be called, these things are wonderful. Chaps Pit Beef, which sits on Pulaski Highway in the parking lot of the Gentlemen’s Gold Club, is the Baltimore restaurant most regularly featured when food-themed television shows zero in on this regional specialty. Having researched my share of pit beef, I favor a place on the other side of the Baltimore from Chaps, technically in nearby Catonsville, called Pioneer Pit Beef. Pioneer is little more than a stand flanked by two picnic tables; most customers get their order to go. The cooks offer the beef, kept hot, in every degree of doneness. A staffer hands you a slice to taste before he thinly shaves the beef for the sandwich on a deli slicer. I ask for mine medium rare and with tiger sauce, a mixture of horseradish and mayo. Sometimes I dribble on some barbecue sauce as well, which reminds me of how I ate them growing up.
I don’t wait to take it home. Even if it’s chilly outside, like it was when I visited Pioneer last month, I plunk myself down at a picnic table and scarf down my sandwich right there. Always on the side: thick, Boardwalk-style fries with gravy. Fries with gravy are another Maryland fixation — something I didn’t remember until I started spending more time again in my home state. No wonder I embraced the recent national poutine craze so fully.
My holiday jaunt to Baltimore feels far away; I’m already crisscrossing the country to report on the restaurants that most define dining in America right now. I’ll be back in Maryland in the summertime — if you have suggestions for pit beef (or anything crab-related), reach me at email@example.com. More soon from my next stop on the road.
Your roving critic,
Pioneer Pit Beef: 1600 North Rolling Road (at the corner of Johnnycake Road — love that for a street name), Catonsville, MD, (410) 455-0015