You know those bumper stickers that say “Keep Austin Weird”? The slogan has been adopted by other cities around the country, but Baltimore doesn’t need a sticker. It is bone-deep weird. Exhibits A, B, C: John Waters, Frank Zappa, HonFest.
Oh, and D: Baltimore pit beef.
It’s a thing all its own. Although it’s often called barbecue, it’s cooked neither slow nor low. It’s not smoked over an indirect fire in a closed cooker. Nor does it conform to conventional notions of grilling (leaping flames, fast-cooking foods like burgers and steaks).
Baltimore pit beef is to live-fire cooking what Waters is to cinema: a bit . . . different. And wholly Baltimore. You can find other smoked meats, like North Carolina pulled pork, Memphis ribs and Texas brisket, coast to coast. But Baltimore pit beef (the city’s name is commonly invoked when discussing the food) is confined mostly to the city and its immediate environs.
On a recent Sunday morning, I decide to check out Charm City’s blue-collar sandwich at the venerable pit beef stand at the weekly Baltimore Farmers Market & Bazaar. The market is a sprawling extravaganza of produce, meats, plants, cheeses and gloriously offbeat prepared foods (sweet potato biscuits, hot sauce-sprinkled portabello-and-feta pita wraps) under an expressway.
I can smell the pit beef long before I can see it, the aroma from the grilling meat carrying all the way to my parking space on the street.
Following my nose, I thread my way through the stands of arugula and burritos toward a cumulus of smoke. Enveloped in the cloud wafting from the smoldering hardwood-lump-charcoal fire is Michael Shores, a trim man with close-cropped brown hair wearing a navy blue pullover, tan cargo shorts and sneakers. He watches a crew of guys as they pull hunks of beef from an open pit and thinly slice the meat to order.
The Shores family has been selling pit beef since 1975, when Michael’s father had a little place out on Route 40. The family has been operating at the farmers market under the name Beef Barons for some 30 years.
Baltimore pit beef is cooked over an open pit, which produces a light smoke. Shores, 42, cooks the meat the old-fashioned way. Several slabs of Angus bottom round, weighing around 15 pounds each and seasoned solely with salt and pepper, hang from two steel poles directly over a glowing hardwood charcoal fire of about 500 degrees in a five-year-old rectangular stainless-steel pit. The pitmen carve hunks of meat into smaller pieces during the cooking process to achieve a variety of doneness.
Shores appraises the smoldering coals in the pit. “You have to constantly watch your fire,” he says, casting an eye on his crew.
Customers line up to order. Some ask for rare, others medium-rare, a few well-done. The meat is hand-sliced thin and piled high on a choice of bread, typically white sandwich bread rather than the traditional kaiser roll. “I like this kind of bread because then the meat dissolves in your mouth,” Shores says, “and you get the full flavor of the meat.”
After getting their sandwich, patrons shuffle to the fixin’s area, where they can add some of Shores’s homemade tomato-based barbecue sauce or the more traditional topping of sinus-clearing horseradish (simple to make at home from scratch) and a few rings of raw onion.
I spread horseradish on mine and crown it with a few slices of onion, hold the sandwich with two hands, then sink my teeth into its juicy mound of medium-rare beef. It has neither the explosive flavor of rib-eye nor the supple texture of smoked brisket. I can’t quite explain it, but it tastes of childhood memories. Of London broil, if London broil wasn’t marinated. Juicy and a little chewy. It is exquisitely satisfying.
When I make pit beef I use eye round, because Shores recommended it for home cooking. It’s slightly more tender than bottom round; both are tough, lean cuts. But the point of pit beef isn’t tenderness, really; it’s the thinly cut pile of flavor. Still, I want every advantage I can get. When I get home, I take Shores’s advice.
With its horseradish, open pit and relatively quick cooking time of about two hours, Baltimore pit beef is easier to define by what it isn’t than what it is. It’s not cooked at a low temperature, like barbecue. It’s not slow-smoked, like barbecue. In other words, it’s not barbecue.
So says Bob Creager, co-owner with his wife, Donna, of Chaps Pit Beef, the city’s most famous restaurant dedicated to the meat. “We don’t have a smoker full of hickory wood, cooking stuff for 12 or 18 hours or stuff like that,” says Creager. “I don’t call it barbecue. I call it pit beef.”
To the extent that the pit beef world has a celebrity, Creager is it. The trim, pewter-haired 52-year-old runs what he calls a dive, and I head there the week after going to the farmers market. The eatery is in a parking lot outside a strip club across from an adult video store in an industrial area on Pulaski Highway.
Creager opened Chaps in 1987, shortly after quitting his job at a steel mill. His father-in-law gave him and Donna what was then a tiny shack as a wedding present, suggesting that Bob turn it into a pit beef restaurant. They’ve added on, but the purple-painted joint (a nod to Creager’s Ravens fanaticism) is still small.
Television personalities Adam Richman, Anthony Bourdain and Guy Fieri have done pieces on Chaps. Creager caters Fieri’s birthday party in California with pit beef he brings from Baltimore. Chaps even made an appearance on the HBO show “The Wire.”
The fame hasn’t gone to Creager’s head. He still arrives every morning at 5:30 to shovel the coals from his beat-up four-year-old stainless steel-pit and stays, most days, till 3 p.m. “I have a hard time giving up control,” he says.
Despite its age, Chaps is new school. The bottom round gets a rub of thyme, garlic powder, paprika, chili powder, cumin, salt and pepper. The meat doesn’t hang on rods; it is cooked on a grate to sear, then moved to a cooler side of the open grill. The beef is cut on a meat slicer, not by hand. The condiment choices include a horseradish-mayonnaise concoction called Tiger Sauce.
The essence of the sandwich, though, remains true: bottom round cooked over hardwood coals in an open pit, sliced thin, piled high. Because of the spice rub, the flavor of this meat is slightly broader than Shores’s.
“It’s similar to other foods,” Creager says. “Roast beef. Brisket. Italian beef in Chicago. But there’s just a little variation that makes it different.”
He has noticed it lately on menus here and there outside Baltimore. “A place in California put Baltimore-style pit beef and oysters on its menu as a special,” he says.
Baltimore pit beef in California? Weird.
The Baltimore Farmers’ Market & Bazaar (underneath the Jones Falls Expressway at Holliday & Saratoga streets) runs Sundays through Dec. 22, 7 a.m. to noon. Chaps Pit Beef (5801 Pulaski Hwy.; 410-483-2379; www.chapspitbeef.com) is open from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 10:30 to midnight Fridays and Saturdays.