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November 08, 2007

Pit Beef Prologue

Dominic Armato
You'd think this would be a total gimme.

My love for that most Chicago of beef sandwiches, the Italian beef, is deep. It abides. I ate them in quantity last year. And now here I am, a new resident of a city that considers a different type of beef sandwich, the pit beef, one of its signature foods. What's more, the pit beef is most typically produced in the same kind of borderline grungy little grub shacks that produce most of Chicago's great Italian beefs. Switch the sandwiches, beam people from one city to the other and nobody would be the wiser. You'd think I'd be feeling a special kinship with the good people of Baltimore. You'd think I'd be flying all over the city devoting the kind of obsessive attention to my adoptive beef sandwich that I did to my hometown beef sandwich. You'd think, over four months into our tour of duty out here on the East Coast, that I'd have written about the pit beef by now. But with all due deference to my new neighbors, and with the understanding that I have to try a lot more of these things before I can address the subject in an educated fashion, here's the thing:

I just can't get all that excited about pit beef.

Dominic Armato
In simplest terms, a pit beef is a large chunk of beef that's lightly seasoned on the outside, grilled over a cool fire, sliced thin and served on a kaiser roll. In practice, it's a little more involved, but not much. Most good pit beef places will let you select your level of doneness. The condiment bars are often vast and varied, but the most popular topping appears to be raw onion and horseradish or tiger sauce (horseradish and mayo), followed closely by heavy, sweet barbecue sauce. I kicked things off by visiting Chaps Pit Beef, which would seem to be the most renowned and respected of Baltimore's pit beef institutions. I sampled multiple sandwiches with multiple toppings at multiple temperatures, but the thought that kept coming back to me was, "Yeah... it's a good roast beef sandwich."

Dominic Armato
That might be a little unfair. Great care goes into their preparation, the char on the outside can add a nice bit of grungy character if you get enough of it, and there's always something to be said for stripped-down simplicity. But still... it's a good roast beef sandwich. Sometimes fairly tough, not terribly exciting, but a good pile of fire-roasted beef. Certainly worthy, and something I'll crave from time to time, but worth building a twelve part beef sandwich sequel on? Tough sell. Of course, I'm well aware that the biggest names in town aren't necessarily the best. So I dug a little deeper when searching for another establishment to try, and came up with Bull on the Run.

Dominic Armato
Bull on the Run is off the beaten path. Literally. It's a little red trailer kitchen that's parked on a commercial access road a hundred yards off Washington Boulevard in Halethorpe. The only way to spot it is the sandwich board out on the corner directing you towards "PIT BEEF --->". It's run by a couple of friendly gals who have a large enclosed 'cue on the back of the wagon and a compact but formidable condiment bar right next to the register. Much to my surprise, they're open year-round, which leads me to believe that either that BBQ gives off an awful lot of heat, or the winters in Baltimore will be a breeze after Chicago. In any case, you select your temperature (of the beef, not of the environment in which it's served), dress your sandwich and then retreat to your car to consume your meaty bounty.

Dominic Armato
And lo and behold, this meaty bounty just might be worthy of a beef-off. Bull on the Run's beef doesn't quite share Chaps' charred character, but it had something my Chaps sandwiches didn't -- a bull full of fresh beef flavor. Plus, other differences impressed. The meat still had some chew, but it was tender and every bite wasn't a wrestling match. The onions were sliced paper thin, and while that may seem a tiny detail, I assure you, it's key. Even the tiger sauce seemed a better match for my rare beef, bringing out its flavor rather than merely coexisting on the same chewy bun. I still don't quite understand the fanatical devotion so many seem to have to these sandwiches, but as all of these elements came together I realized that I'd come a little too close to writing them off entirely. I'm still not sold on a Beef-Off: Baltimore, and I need to spend the last couple months of the year better familiarizing myself with the institution. But I'm much more optimistic than I was a couple of weeks ago.

Chaps Pit Beef
5801 Pulaski Highway
Baltimore, MD 21205
Bull on the Run
3900 Block of Washington Blvd.
Halethorpe, MD 21227


I have eaten at Bull on the Run many times and have taken the sandwiches back to Dundalk with me for friends and family. You can't beat the food there...one word...AWESOME!!!!!!!!

The pit beef is a small place where you can find what you really need to eat it's insane the among of food that you can eat there.

im from chicago and i had the pit beef at chaps in march 2010.its ok! but being from chicago i had high expectations and it was not to be.i know i can fix the pit beef with a few adjustments.now i say for the people of baltimore someth'n special is coming your way1

Intelligent post with some awesome details. Just a week back I found a similar blog but the posts were not so deeply researched. thanks so much

Excellent post due, gonna refer my readers to it. Sure is slim pickings anymore in Baltimore for real pit beef.

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