I know this because I’ve seen it: Maryland is small enough that, with a car, you can explore every corner of it. This summer I did just that, and, as it seems to work so well for the rest of the states that are south of the Mason-Dixon Line, I chose to use barbecue as my guide. And in Maryland, “barbecue” means pit beef.
Just as Maryland isn’t really the South, pit beef, technically, is not barbecue. To qualify as barbecue, meat needs to be cooked low and slow with an indirect, smoldering flame. Pit beef is cooked hot and heavy over a blazing heat, regularly moved about the grill to adjust its temperature, cooking it to a rosy rare on the inside, the outside charred and blackened. It’s thinly sliced, piled on a roll, and that’s that. Barbecue tastes like smoke, pit beef tastes like fire. I can’t get enough of it.
I’m not so arrogant to believe that I, a native of Brooklyn, could simply devour these sandwiches without understanding them on a deeper, almost spiritual level. In essence, I was eating the same sandwich over and over again, yet, every time there were slight (sometimes barely perceptible) variations that, to a Marylander, could mean the difference between middling and legendary. As such, I reached out to friends whose roots run deep in the Old Line State.
On the first leg of my journey I was joined by my friend Evan Siple — host of the Baltimore-centric City That Breeds podcast and fifth-generation Marylander — who taught me to pay special attention to the band of char that surrounds every thin slice of beef: If you can’t taste the “the pit,” all you’re eating is a run-of-the-mill roast beef sandwich. He ceded that the famous tiger sauce — a blend of horseradish and mayonnaise that is typically associated with pit beef — is not, in fact, essential.
My research confirmed this: I tried to strike up conversations with regulars at every spot I visited, and every one of them topped their sandwich with some combination of straight horseradish, barbecue sauce, and raw onions. “Honestly,” said Siple, “it doesn’t really matter how you take it. It just matters that it’s ours.”
This is the same thing I was told when I reached out to my friend Bill Addison, the Los Angeles Times food critic and son of Baltimore. “I don’t get too riled up around notions of province or authenticity,” he said. “As a Maryland kid growing up in the 1970s, pit beef was simply part of our family’s diet. We knew, without discussing it, that pit beef was our own — the turf to crab’s surf.”
Bill’s words are usually enough for me, but since my pit beef journey would be made on sacred ground, I reached out to another friend and food critic to fact check. Richard Gorelick, the former restaurant critic for the Baltimore Sun, confirmed that there really is no wrong way to make pit beef; what was important is that it belonged to Maryland. “Baltimore loves more than anything to be on center stage, even if it’s when bad things happen,” he said. “So when everyone from all over seemed to love it, we were like, ‘Pit beef? Yeah, pit beef! Because that’s us, we’re pit beef!’ ”
After my trip with Evan, with Bill and Richard’s words ringing in my ears, I felt confident in my pit beef evaluation abilities. I spent my weekends seeking out every pit beef shack — 34 in total — from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore, stuffing my face with sandwiches, exploring all the remarkable places that exist in between them. Pit beef is Maryland, and here are the 11 best (plus four honorable mentions), in alphabetical order.
Baker's Pit Beef and Tavern
Visiting Baker’s, located a stone’s throw from one of the remaining drive-in movie theaters in the United States, feels like time travel. The tavern was founded in 1890; a pit beef stand was added in 1962, and the business has been owned and operated by Greek immigrants John and Maria Leos since 1975. The two admit that although they’ve added some modern touches, such as Keno gaming machines, they’ve never thought to renovate the tavern — a decision that, along with a killer pit beef sandwich that marries classic pit flavors with a whisper of Greek home cooking, makes Baker’s worthy of a pilgrimage. It’s now run full time by their son Evan, but during my visit, Maria, 77, was manning the slicer while John, 75, kept a watchful eye. Enjoy your sandwich at the bar, washing it down with a $1.50 draft beer and maybe playing a few rounds on the 1950s Shuffle Bowl machine.
2233 Old Eastern Ave., Baltimore. Open Thursday-Saturday.
Bird's Nest BBQ
Tim Brown opened Bird’s Nest BBQ on the kind of strip that’s been copied and pasted in every American suburb: chain bar and grills, fast food burgers and fries, mass-market pizza delivery. Seven years later he’s still standing, and he’s serving a pit beef sandwich that made me glad I had (barely) tolerated the Interstate 95 traffic. The secret is in the sauces: Brown continually bastes his beef as it cooks, then serves it in paper-thin slices that beg to be doused with spicy “Raven Sauce” — one of four signature varieties he makes in-house. Brown insists on keeping all of his purveyors on the small side, working with other mom-and-pop vendors to keep dollars inside his northeast Maryland community, and participates in more than 200 local fundraisers every year. Bird’s Nest may not have the curb appeal of his big-name neighbors, but who needs neon lights when you’ve got heart, soul and secret sauce?
303 S. Main St., Bel Air. birdsnestbbq.com. Open daily.
I yelped in delight after my first bite of Charcoal Style’s sandwich. In a genius move that could be seen as sacrilege by many purists, owner Nick Courtalis deviates from the common pit beef model, using a brioche roll to contain a mess of succulent, brutally singed outside round. Ordinarily I’m not a fan of brioche sandwiches — the bread’s best characteristics are almost always obscured by a glut of condiments — but with pit beef, it was a revelation. Chargrilling, even when executed flawlessly, imparts a slight smoky dryness to large cuts of meat. The buttery richness of brioche is an ideal companion, laying just enough fat on the tongue to make every one of the pit’s subtle notes crescendo to full blast.
10907 Pulaski Hwy., White Marsh. charcoalstyle.com. Open daily.
Rich Korman spent 20 years as an electrician but always felt as if barbecue was his true calling. “It’s how our ancestors ate,” he says. “Our palates were built for it.” A food science geek heavily influenced by the Brazilian and Argentine methods for cooking meat outdoors, he can be found manning the smoker every day at his modern interpretation of a roadside shack in bucolic Upperco. His version starts with lean eye round bathed in Worcestershire sauce and Korman’s signature rub, cooked outdoors over a charcoal and hickory fire. The meat is superlative on its own, but it would be a shame not to take advantage of Char’d’s many housemade sauces. Better yet, ask if they can make you the “Dirty South” version from their secret menu, which smothers the pit beef in pepper jack cheese, caramelized onions and chopped barbecue brisket.
15513 Hanover Pike, Upperco. Open Thursday-Sunday.
Expressway Pit Beef
The large menu board in front of Expressway feels overwhelming at first, and for good reason: It’s hard to choose just one thing when so many killer sandwiches are on the board. The pit beef is exemplary, sliced on the thicker side of thin with just enough chew to make you work for it without becoming exasperated. While the meat is fine on a kaiser roll, it’s even better when you allow it to mingle with other items on the menu. I’m specifically talking about the Bulldog: a soft hoagie roll thickly lined with pit beef, cradling a thick grilled sausage, covered in grilled onions and melted cheese.
8388 Piney Orchard Pkwy., Odenton. expresswaypitbeef.com. Open daily.
Jake’s is a special place. It’s the kind of joint that pops up out of nowhere on a long and winding country road, making you slam on the brakes and drift into the parking lot that’s full of mismatched patio sets and plumes of intoxicating smoke rising from three massive smokers. The decor can be best described as the opposite of ambiance, which I truly mean as a compliment — meat is the only thing that matters at Jake’s. In fact, at Jake’s I did away with the bread and sauces, wrapping delicate slices of blush pink beef around raw onion rings, savoring every morsel as I watched hawks swooping overhead over tall forest trees. It’s a beefy Brigadoon, just 15 minutes outside Baltimore, and a much needed sanctuary for a city girl like me.
11950 Falls Rd., Cockeysville. jakesgrillmd.com. Open daily.
Pioneer Pit Beef
“Fanboys love Pioneer,” says Gorelick, the former Baltimore Sun restaurant critic, and I can verify that’s closer to a fact than an opinion. It’s Addison’s favorite pit beef joint, a required stop whenever the Los Angeles Times food critic comes home to Maryland, and, before I broadened my horizons on this long carnivorous odyssey, it was mine as well. It’s not the sort of place you’d expect critics accustomed to fine dining to be so deeply enamored with: a nondescript hut located next to an interstate overpass, with two picnic tables for those who wish to dine alfresco with dumpster views. When a customer reaches the front of the ever-present line and is at last allowed to step inside, the scorching, dimly lit kitchen comes fully into view like a theater of flaming meat. It is mad, it is frenetic, it is perfect. And the sandwich, absolutely dripping with juices tinged with salt and smoke, confirms that the fanboys know what they’re talking about.
North Rolling Road and Johnnycake Road, Catonsville. Open Monday-Saturday.
Don’t let the “Boys” on the sign fool you: In the male-dominated world of barbecued meats, Marla George has been holding her own for more than 20 years. Her pit beef is cut on the thicker side, which, as I discovered at several other stops, often results in a tough, chewy sandwich that could easily wear down your jaw. In a remarkable surprise, my teeth easily glided through each layer of well-seasoned meat, and I savored the generous number of crispy edges. Don’t leave without trying the hush puppies, these golf-ball-size cornmeal clouds with a golden, crispy shell.
1515 Forest Dr., Annapolis. pitboys.com. Open daily.
Shore BBQ Company
St. Michaels native and food service veteran Montia Rice knew that when it finally came time to turn his 25-year barbecue hobby into a place of his own, pit beef needed to be on the menu. His version borrows heavily from the traditional Southern barbecue styles seen in Shore’s other offerings, meaning less time spent directly over a flame, more time spent slow roasting in a smoker full of hickory wood. All his sauces are made in-house, and the star is the simplest: a pungent tiger sauce that swaps out mayonnaise for sour cream. When slathered generously on the deeply toasted roll, Rice’s version makes a very strong argument for all of Maryland to follow his lead.
137 N. Harrison St., Easton. shorebbq.com. Open Monday-Saturday.
Smoky’s has changed hands a few times in its 28 years, but its signature recipe has remained the same. Cooked indoors on a gas grill flecked with cherry wood chips, well-seasoned top round is charred over direct heat for two hours, resulting in slices of thinly shaved beef outlined with a thick band of pure pit flavor. Smoky’s gives you a choice of a potato or kaiser roll — I suggest the former for its subtle sweetness, which balances the aggressive flavor of the char. Current owner Steve Taylor recommends eating it rare with a schmear of straight horseradish and raw white onions, and he says that if you’re new to pit beef, be sure to tell them at the counter. They’re well-versed in teaching Pit Beef 101.
2030 Liberty Rd, Eldersburg. smokys-bbq.com. Open Monday-Saturday.
Tucked beneath a drab beige sign in nondescript shopping center in Wicomico County, Taylor’s BBQ is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. Locals have no such problem: A veritable Salisbury icon, it’s been smoking barbecue and baking its own bread for a quarter of a century. The pillow-soft, Cuban-style roll makes Taylor’s a diamond in a state full of fantastic pit beef; filled with medium-thick slices of grilled top round that have been warmed in jus, this sandwich doesn’t require a single drop of additional embellishment.
720 E. College Ave., Salisbury. taylorsbbq.com. Open Monday-Saturday.