My brother has never been as interested in my life as after he watched HBO’s The Wire. “Hey Jesse, is this what Baltimore is actually like?”
I don’t know why he asks me. I’m a Hopkins student, not a drug lord, opiate user or police detective. But the one thing he asks me about that I might know about is the pit beef sandwich that everyone seems to love.
The pit beef that I’ve had so far has been dry, flavorless and overall sad. I’ve tried it at the farmer’s market, and I’ve tried it at multiple corner shops. But then there’s Chap’s, hailed as Guy Fieri’s favorite sandwich and one of the so-called best in Baltimore.
So last weekend, I ventured to the outskirts of East Baltimore to check out the hype at Chap’s Pit Beef. The store is a metal shack plopped into the parking lot of a strip club. The sign is easy to spot coming east on Pulaski Highway.
Chap’s started when a “Southwest-themed nightclub” owner named Gus Glava wanted to get his son-in-law Bob Creager out of working in the steel mill. Creager started a pit beef stand with his newlywed wife Donna in 1987 with the help of Glava’s investment, and it was named Chap’s after the original club name.
The shack was placed in the parking lot outside of the club, nothing more than a grill, counter and a few walls to support it.
Since then, the building has expanded with a dining area, restroom and full kitchen, and the restaurant has opened numerous franchises in the greater Baltimore area. Now, the original still operates as a shack outside of The Gentlemen’s Gold Club, a place oozing with class.
Anthony Bourdain visited on an episode about the Rust Belt with characters from The Wire. Guy Fieri came with Duff Goldman, a Baltimore native of Ace of Cakes fame. Andrew Zimmern, the guy who I loved as a child in Bizarre Foods and much less so as the owner of Lucky Cricket, paid a visit as well.
All this talk is great, but how’s the food?
We ordered an original medium-rare pit beef sandwich and a pound of pork ribs with coleslaw and fries. Bottom round is thrown on the open pit whole and blackened before being processed through a deli slicer and finished back on the grill.
Pit beef is Baltimore barbecue. In a video on Chap’s Pit Beef’s YouTube channel, Creager explains the difference between Baltimore and Texas barbecue. The key distinction is that Baltimore uses an open pit while Texas uses a closed pit.
We topped the pit beef sandwich with nothing more than the requisite raw onion and tiger sauce, which is nothing more than horseradish and mayo. The meat was grainy and quite bland, with a hint of smokiness.
Who was I kidding? It’s bottom round, a cut known for being flavorless, cooked quick-and-easy on a grill. $7.95 for a sandwich that tastes like next to nothing leaves me with the itching feeling that I’ve been duped.
The ribs were better, but not by much. They looked good: a nice char on the outside with a generous coating of barbecue sauce. But whatever suggestion of smoke was washed away by the sweetness of the sauce, and the meat, which was chewy and unforgiving, needed more time to break down the collagen. My teeth were not my biggest fans by the end of the meal.
The fries were good. The coleslaw, unremarkable. Smoky and sweet, the gold sauce was the best part. I just couldn’t resist dipping another fry in it.
The lesson here is this. Maybe there’s a reason Texas smokes the meats in a closed pit low-and-slow. Maybe there’s a reason you might barbecue with short rib or brisket. Maybe there’s a reason hordes of tourist and locals alike will line up at Franklin Barbecue.
Located in the outskirts of the city, Hopkins students would either have to drive or rideshare to get there, and I’m not convinced it’s worth it. But you’ll never know for yourself if you don’t try it. There you have it, one of the most Baltimore foods in Baltimore. And it disappoints.