The state of Maryland practices barbecue in a rare form. I discovered this for myself on a grassy road outside of Baltimore, in front of a truck that had been built around a barrel-shaped smoker and decorated on all sides with the words: "PIT BEEF." After taking my order, the ladies of Bull on the Run picked up a rested round roast and nestled it into their deli slicer, carving away thin, pink ribbons and piling them unceremoniously onto a roll.
The result was Maryland pit beef, a regional specialty whose juices run across Maryland and sometimes spill up north to the Pennsylvania border. Frequently served alongside other meats under the umbrella of "pit BBQ," pit beef is typically a top roast that's been minimally seasoned, grilled directly over charcoal, and sliced deli-style to produce a sandwich that would make Arby's eat its hat.
Prepared from a lean cut and often served rare, pit beef is not a mascot for long-haul barbecue. A pile of wood cords lay at the base of Bull on the Run's smoker, but it was used to fuel the fire rather than impart flavor. Horseradish, mayo, and thin-sliced raw onion were on hand to complete the sandwich, which usually isn't much more than a fresh but familiar roast beef.
Pit beef's familiarity, however, doesn't make it easier to perfect, and placing an order cooked to a specific degree of rarity always carries a degree of risk. I was reminded of this at Expressway Pit Beef in Odenton; while pleasantly smoky on its edges, the pit beef I had ordered medium-rare arrived mostly medium and unpleasantly tough in a few spots.
You can clear this hurdle by asking to see "the rare for today," a simple test I learned from an old-timer while standing in line at The Canopy in Ellicott City, then gauging your request accordingly. The almost-rare meat I sampled in this way struck a nice balance of flavors, dropping hints of smoke, salt and pepper amidst the mild taste of roast beef. At the top of its game, Canopy's sandwich was a pit-perfect execution of the same standard served at Expressway and Bull on the Run: tender, precisely-cooked roast beef with a peck of smoke and grit.
Pioneer Pit Beef in Woodlawn, on the other hand, takes its competitors to Bovine University with its pit beef, which is intensely smoky, forcefully seasoned, and seared to a char. The slicer, who takes every order, cuts a single slice of beef from the round, still steaming, and hands it over to the customer for approval before sandwich construction begins.
When asked about the joint's cooking process, the slicer at Pioneer that afternoon gave up one response: "If I told you anything, my boss would fire me."
That said, I can't say exactly how Pioneer makes its pit beef as juicy as it is, but even the well-done slices mixed into my medium-rare sandwich were surprisingly moist. Pioneer also offers its sandwiches au jus—with all the juices, a dash of black pepper, and smear of horseradish, you have a salty, smoky, county take on the French dip.
Pioneer's hand-cut fries splashed with brown gravy are an ideal complement to the pit beef. Crisp at first, the fries turn into mashed potatoes sopping up gravy by the end of the meal.
This rare treasure will have you pulling over to the side of the road.
9319 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City MD 21042
Expressway Pit Beef
1352 Odenton Road, Odenton MD 21113
Pioneer Pit Beef
Johnnycake Rd. and N Rolling Road, Woodlawn, MD
Bull on the Run
3700 Washington Boulevard (off I-695), Halethorpe MD
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.