When hitting the coastal city of Baltimore, the food you’d associate with the city would be crabs. Steamers, crab cakes, soft shell sandwiches, and more.
Venture away from the port area, however, and you’ll find a completely different culinary scene. Over on the East side of the city lies the blue collar crowd, and crabs aren’t every day living. The fact is, seafood is a premium; and for those who are simply getting by, a much more humble sandwich is up their alley. Two words: Pit beef.
Pit beef is Baltimore’s answer to barbecue. Originating on the Pulaski highway in the 60s or 70s, pit beef starts with a lean roast cut. It isn’t seasoned or sauced; but instead cooks slowly over a bed of charcoal. It doesn’t rely on wood smoke, or any flavor enhancers, leaving you nothing but pure, beefy goodness. It’s sliced hot, and layered unevenly across a kaiser roll. The condiment of choice is tiger sauce – a combination of mayonnaise and horseradish, but most places offer a half dozen sauce options.
We had spent our morning touring the Babe Ruth Museum in downtown Baltimore. While Ruth is known for his time in pinstripes, he spent his childhood in Baltimore at an orphanage after being abandoned by his father. The orphanage has been converted into a museum, with the walls plastered with facts, mementos, and short films covering his life, from his time at St. Mary’s, to his final playing days with the Boston Braves. Although I didn’t learn anything new, getting a feel for his life up close was special. And I must have adopted his legendary hunger, because I was starved.
We headed about 20 minutes away to tiny Catonsville, where we had heard pit beef was being served at a place called Pioneer. Our GPS was a little off point, and it took us a few extra minutes to locate the place. We were looking for a restaurant. What we eventually found was this:
That’s it! A small shack, adorned with 3 long picnic tables, and an asymmetrical parking lot.
How bloody cool.
Because the hut was so tightly packed, Emily wasn’t going to be able to go in with the stroller, so she and Noah took their seats at one of the picnic tables while I got us lunch.
I learned that what sets Pioneer apart from the other shacks in the area is that they are the only ones who cook theirs with wood smoke. The fresh hickory smell had my mouth watering; and I couldn’t even see what was taking place inside yet! Instead, I was faced with a really long, daunting menu.
I eventually reached the window, and there stood a man with access to a whole lot of meat and fire. I kinda worship this guy. Wood, fire, and meat … I could live every day in that shack, with no access to the outside world, and die a happy person.
He asked for my orders, and I opted for a Super Pit Beef, and a Turkey Sandwich for Emily. He asked how I wanted the beef? I’ve never been asked that question at a sandwich place before! Medium rare seemed right, and he quickly sliced a hunk off a roast, hot off the pit, and handed it to me to sample.
Man alive … It was hot, smokey, tender, soaked in that glorious hickory flavor, and moist as hell. These people are artists. I gave him the thumbs up, asking for BBQ sauce instead of tiger sauce, due to a personal aversion I have to mayonnaise.
He did the same with the turkey. It too had retained a ton of moisture, and was wonderful.
There’s nothing fancy going on here. It’s a straight up roast beef sandwich, with a pickle on the side. It’s the cooking that makes the difference; the low and slow approach. Roast beef often has to sit in its own juice to reconstitute itself, and the horse radish serves to keep it from being too dry. Here, the condiments are a flavor enhancer, because the meat is still dripping with flavor. It’s humble, peasant food, kept alive not by reputation; but by cooks who know what they’re doing, and do it well.
Elsewhere, the turkey sandwich was being devoured. In fact; we had to turn the sandwich to keep the bite mark out of our shot, since she couldn’t wait for me to snap a picture before turning into Cookie Monster’s carnivorous cousin. There was no way for us to mask what she did to the pickle, unfortunately.
This is my kind of food. Fresh, cheap, flavorful. Embracing the ingredients, and letting the food stand on its own.
If you need me, I’ll be out back trying to hunt a pit beef.
Address: N Rolling Rd & Johnnycake Rd, Catonsville, MD
Facebook: Pioneer Pit Beef