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Here’s the Beef

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Here’s the Beef
Written by Brennen Jensen | Photos by Tom McCorkle

The city known for crab cakes is also home to some of the best barbecue you’ve never tasted

Maryland is for crabs, of course, but the runner-up dish—the turf alongside the surf—is a fat sandwich of beef top or bottom round given a crusty char over charcoal and sliced thin—medium rare, preferably—and traditionally topped with horseradish and raw onion.

Horseradish mayo is one popular pit beef topping, as Bob Craeger from Chaps demonstrates.

Chaps pit beef is not in the prettiest section of Baltimore. And that’s an understatement. The restaurant—and that’s perhaps an overstatement for what’s essentially a jerry-built, overgrown roadside stand with picnic table seating—is perched alongside Pulaski Highway on the city’s industrial east side. Chaps shares a parking lot with a strip club along a cheerless stretch lined with auto graveyards, down-market motels, and liquor stores. It’s the sort of hardscrabble commercial area one might visit in pursuit of plumbing supplies or a pair of used radial tires rather than something to eat.

But come here to eat people do, and in steady streams since Bob Craeger and his wife, Donna, opened in 1987—when it really was a roadside stand, sans running water and electricity. The stream grew into a torrent ten years ago after Guy Fieri, spiky-haired host of Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, became the first of a handful of TV folks to come calling. The weekday lunch crowd might now include workmen in hard hats and safety vests alongside out-of-town food tourists Instagramming their steaming beef sandwiches, or any of the score of other meaty offerings—pit turkey, pit ham, even corned beef—pulled off the charcoal pit in the back.

“We get folks out here all the time taking pictures,” Bob Craeger says. “We had ten tourists from Korea drive down from New York in a rented van just for lunch. Another time we had a driver in a black suit and tie roll up in an Escalade and order twenty-some sandwiches. When I asked where it was all going he said he was a driver for the king of Jordan who was at Andrews Air Force Base waiting for the sandwiches before getting on a plane.”

Chaps Pit Beef.

What is this dish seemingly fit for a king? It’s Baltimore pit beef. Maryland is for crabs, of course, but the runner-up dish—the turf alongside the surf—is a fat sandwich of beef top or bottom roundgiven a crusty char over charcoal and sliced thin—medium rare, preferably—and traditionally topped with horseradish and raw onion. Chaps, along with pioneering outposts such as Big Al’s and Big Fat Daddy’s, got this patch of Pulaski dubbed “pit beef row” back in the 1980s. And then in 1992, jovial giant Boog Powell, the retired all-star Orioles first baseman, opened a pit beef stand inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards, making blue smoke rising beyond the centerfield wall as much a part of the Baltimore baseball experience as the Oriole bird dancing on a dugout, and turning legions of hardball viewers into pit beef eaters.

“In the pantheon of American barbecue, pit beef is unique to Baltimore and maybe southern Pennsylvania,” says Steven Raichlen, author of a half-dozen barbecue books and whose PBS cooking shows include Barbecue University and Primal Grill. “I’m very proud, as someone who grew up in Baltimore, to know that we have our own unique style of barbecue that differentiates us from everybody else.”

Pit beef surely is an odd duck. First off, it violates a rule-of-thumb continental protein divide that says west of the Mississippi is beef barbecue country, while eastward, pork is king. And it’s no low-and-slow dish subject to hours and hours of hardwood smoke. It can be served rare, medium, or well-done, as good pit people can juggle pieces to achieve doneness-to-order. (Imagine asking a Texas pitmaster for medium-rare brisket.) Some folks vociferously say it shouldn’t be called barbecue at all, arguing the point on food blogs with the same fervor as whiskeyphiles debating whether Jack Daniels is bourbon or not.

Way more than wieners: Heavenly Hotdog creates a divine pit beef sandwich.

When tracking down pit beef’s history and development, the first lesson is learning where not to look. Eat, Drink and Be Merry in Maryland, the venerable 1932 compendium of Maryland cookery, contains recipes for muskrat and baked calf’s head, but nothing on pit beef. The central branch of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library maintains an entire floor dedicated to Marylandia, but if pit beef items lurk amid its stacks of ephemera, they remain elusive. Meanwhile, self-styled culinary historian Kara Mae Harris, who blogs about Maryland food history at oldlineplate.com, reports zero pit beef listings in the scores of regional cookbooks she’s poured through.

Indeed, search the Baltimore Sun’s online archives and you’ll find that pit beef didn’t appear in the paper until 1968, and then just in a bar ad. But after combining the scant paper trail with some oral history, it’s safe to say that pit beef as we know it today was born out of bull roasts (sometimes bull and oyster roasts), a mid-Atlantic term for fundraiser buffets. These are hosted by politicians, VFWs, firehouses, fraternal organizations—any charity case looking to raise cash by selling tickets to a feast. The term “bull roast” appears in the Sun as far back as 1882 and the Baltimore calendar is still chockablock with such dinners.

The Chaps classic: pit beef topped with raw onions and dressed with horseradish mayo and barbecue sauce.

Now, if a seminal figure emerges from the swirling blue pit smoke of time, it’s John F. Langenfelder, founder of a family-run, beef-focused catering business that flourished for most of the twentieth century. While a 1938 Sun article on bull roasts stops short of using the term “pit beef,” it describes Langenfelder as a “lord of the pits” who, together with three of six sons, oversaw “charcoal fires” and some 450 pounds of beef. And he was an old hand already; as the article notes he’s been “at roasting for twenty-eight years.” A grainy accompanying photo shows a woman with bread slices in hand seeking beef slices before the pit, so these were sandwich operations from the get-go.

“I wouldn’t say that John F. invented pit beef and how it’s done, but he was definitely part of the beginning of it,” says his grandson, Conrad Langenfelder. “There weren’t very many other people doing bull roasts or pit beef roasts at the time, and it was pretty much something that they had cornered the market on because they had a good reputation.”

Conrad Langenfelder, who somewhat ironically runs a hog farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore (“I tried beef but I couldn’t make it work,” he says) spent some boyhood time in the family bull roast business after his uncle John Jr. assumed the helm. It was grueling work, with hunks of meat suspended on skewers and hand-sliced directly over the fiery pit. He doesn’t remember any seasoning going on the beef beforehand, though there was a curious salt-and-pepper mop of sorts.

“They would have a bucket of water with salt and pepper in the water and they took a sponge from it to each piece of meat, especially as they were cutting,” he recalls. “This was also a way that they could control their fire as it would drip down and slow the flame.”

The demands of the business eventually had them seeking more and more help outside of their sizable clan. Enter folks like Mike DiCarlo, who ran Big Al’s pit beef in the 1980s and ’90s and now owns Riverside Pub & Grille in Belair, Maryland. He was all of 14 in the mid-’70s when his beef lessons began under the Langenfelders. “I was just like a kitchen helper but they had a crew of women and men working and we’d go to different places for bull roasts and crab feasts and set up these eight-foot pits,” DiCarlo says. What he and others were learning was both how to cook the beef, and also how readily folks lined up for sandwiches heaped with the juicy, hintof-smoke meat. Did you really need a gladhanding candidate or cash-strapped firehouse as an excuse to fire up a pit? Seems not.

“My father and I went out and did pit beef in a few places where we would just set up out in a parking lot,” DiCarlo says. “And then we opened up our first stand at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard, probably in 1979.”

Parts & Labor cooks their pit beef over wood, though charcoal is more common.

“The Baltimore region’s bull and oyster roasts, like outside a VFW, were the first place I saw pit beef being professionally done,” says Chaps’ Bob Craeger. “And then people started throwing a little pit beef shack outside a bar or their liquor store or something. Maybe just on the weekends.” Craeger saw pit beef as a way to get out of the steel mill and says he jumped into the business “on a whim.” Before his current parking lot partner became a strip club, it was a countrywestern-themed bar called Chaps that his father-in-law ran. The bar lent him a patch of asphalt and gave him a name. “We built a little shack out front, maybe twelve-by-fifteen,” Craeger says. “I’d just come out here and light a fire pit, run an extension cord across the parking lot over to the bar to plug in a slicer, and start selling beef.” An estimated three million customers later, the shack has been added on to countless times—a hodgepodge assemblage of exhaust hoods and walk-in refrigeration units. The sales counter is original, the corners worn smooth as ivory. Now the Craegers are franchising the concept with a handsome prototype, “Famous Chaps Pit Beef ” eatery, already up and running in Aberdeen, with a second that should have its lights on and the pit smoking in Frederick by summer.

Pit beef morphed some as it moved from itinerant, al fresco feasts to permanent or semi-permanent stands. Most nixed the skewer system to slap the meat straight on the grill. Electric slicers made for thinner cuts and better portion control while various dry rubs replaced the salt-and-pepper water bucket. And it started to get noticed outside of its blue-collar, east side stronghold. “As with any indigenous cuisine, pit beef derives much of its flavor from its neighborhood, generally an untrendy cultural marinade of automobile exhaust and Bawlamerese,” read a snarky but appreciative piece the Sun ran in 1992.

Digging in at Parts & Labor.

That’s the same year Powell brought pit beef to the ball park, giving the sandwich its biggest bump of all (well, before Guy Fieri came to town in his trademark Camaro). Turns out, the veteran slugger’s pit-beef appreciation dates back decades earlier to old Memorial Stadium and a case of love-at-first-whiff during pregame warm-ups. The exact year this occurred is forgotten—Powell joined the O’s in 1961—but it had to be before 1965 when he moved to first base. And guess whose name pops up again?

“Back in the old days when I was an outfielder, there was a local company here called Langenfelder, and they used to have what they called bull roasts behind the centerfield fence at the ballpark,” says Powell. “And the smells wafting over were just almost too much to take. Just wonderful. I could look through the fence and see they had lump charcoal in big fire pits with big pieces of beef they were flipping with giant pitchforks.”

Unable to stand the aromatic beefy tease, Powell managed to get one of the pit-minders’ attention and plead for a sample, which was handed to him through a hole in the fence.

“I got a big piece wrapped up in white paper,” Powell says. “I didn’t have anywhere to put it so I put it in my glove and I carried it back into the clubhouse, where I just totally devoured it. I had that glove for the rest of that year and you could smell it every day—the juice and everything else that came out of that piece of beef was integrated into that glove.”

The Line Starts Here

As Baltimore pit beef moved from bull roasts to restaurants, scores of new pitmasters emerged, tweaking the dish while keeping the core approach intact: taking a tough-but-tasty piece of meat, giving it a crusty exterior and a hint of smoke, and slicing it thin against the grain. Most agree that medium-rare is ideal. As to how best to eat it, well that can open a can of worms. Kaiser roll, potato roll, white bread, rye? Fresh horseradish, horseradish mayo, onions, barbecue sauce? Baltimoreans will argue the virtues of their favorite approach. Find yours at one of the spots below.

A sleek CHAPS PIT BEEF franchise may be coming to a shopping area near you. In the meantime, the dowdy original Chaps cooks its dry-rubbed bottom rounds over hardwood charcoal seven days a week. 5801 Pulaski Highway, Baltimore (410) 483-2379

Pit beef rose to fame on the east side of town but beef lovers in the west are hardly deprived, thanks to PIONEER PIT BEEF. Not much to look at here: A mustard-yellow, square-hut of a building wedged between the rear of a liquor store and an interstate embankment. Sans indoor seating, it’s a simple setup: Hungry customers enter one door and exit another, laden with sacks of smoky protein. And it is smoky, as pitmaster Jesus Cruz cooks the bottom rounds on wood. Hand-cut french fries is the only side. Try them topped with gravy, Baltimore-style. 1602 N. Rolling Road, Windsor Mill

Another compass point, another pit. The northern ’burbs get their pit beef fill at JAKE’S GRILL, carved out of an erstwhile filling station (and with all the incumbent charm intact). Its namesake pitmaster declined to be interviewed about just how he handles his beef. Whatever he’s doing, it works as their sandwiches are some of the best—and largest—in town. Ribs are on offer too. 11950 Falls Road, Cockeysville (410) 308-0022

Yes, the meal with working-class roots has gone artisanal. For a locally sourced pit beef sandwich, there’s PARTS & LABOR in the city’s Remington neighborhood—part of James Beard award-winning chef Spike Gjerde’s empire. Each week, head butcher George Marsh cuts the top rounds and eye rounds they use for pit beef out of the huge hindquarters of a pasture-raised steer sourced from an area farm. The rounds sit overnight in a simple salt-and-pepper rub before being cooked on wood. They use it mostly for their Dad Bod sandwich, where beef joins pit ham and a homemade chicken sausage in tri-meat gut-buster. 2600 N. Howard Street, Baltimore (443) 873-8887

Great pit beef at a hot dog joint? Yes, if we’re talking HEAVENLY HOTDOG GRILL in Baltimore’s Northeast Market in the shadow of the sprawling Johns Hopkins Medical Center campus. It’s run by the Baines family, who have their pits offsite and do full barbecue catering all over town. Shawn Baines says their bottom rounds are marinated for twenty-four hours in “salt, pepper, worcestershire, and love.” The rounds cook in a traditional smoker but for an untraditionally short two hours. 2101 E. Monument Street, Baltimore (410) 831-7905

While BIG FAT DADDY’S helped make Pit Beef Row, they’ve now closed their Pulaski Highway stand to become a traveling barbecue operation, hitting fairs and festivals up and down the East Coast. Their bottom rounds sit for forty-eight hours in a proprietary rub before hitting the charcoal. Founder Wayne Schafer says he’s got most of New Jersey hooked on rare pit beef but when he has his pits and smokers down in the Carolinas, he says he will also do a low-slow brisket. “You give people rare beef down there and they’ll back up on you—what’s that?!”