We love road food. And we've come to the conclusion that maybe food stands were the food trucks of the 80s.
Gus Glava built one on the parking lot of his bar in 1987. He hoped it would get his new son in law out of the steel mills, which promised a short lifetime of physical ills. Bob, who’d married his daughter Donna, turned out to be a great cook. Donna turned out to be a first-rate organizer and manager.
Starting with the 12 by 15-foot stand, powered by extension cords, the business prospered, adding on several times, but never changing its menu of pit-cooked meat and a few well-prepared side dishes. Now at five locations, Chaps Pit Beef has become a go-to spot for this Baltimore favorite, and long outlived the business that spawned it.
Nowadays, believe it or not, it sits in the parking lot of an all-nude review club.
Pit Beef makes great Road Food
The first time we tried pit beef was at the Delta Cardiff Heritage Festival in tiny Delta, Pennsylvania. The town is Welsh by culture and originally home to miners who collected and split slate from the nearby deposits to make roofing shingles. One day we’ll tell you more about that. It’s a small festival. The day we were there, maybe fifty people were in attendance.
We noticed, around lunchtime, that a line began forming at one corner of the picnic pavilion on the grounds of the park where the festival was being held. At events like this, you just can’t ignore a line, so we queued up too.
About ten minutes later, a man walked up to a homemade barrel grill outside the pavilion and threw back the lid. Inside were several blackened roasts and a couple of hams. He pulled the cover off a table, revealing a meat slicer, several bags of sandwich buns, and a big jar of what turned out to be horseradish sauce.
A collective sigh passed through the assembled crowd as he pulled one of the roasts from the grill, laid it on the slicer, and went to work. More beef than a person should eat at one sitting was piled onto bun after bun, the line moved forward and the level of the horseradish sauce lowered steadily. It was a life-changing experience, that sandwich, and it propelled us into the search for pit beef whenever we’re in the area.
As foodstuffs go, pit beef isn’t all that old. It made its early appearances along the National Road in Baltimore’s working-class neighborhoods in the late 60s, but didn’t really become a Baltimore thing until the early 80s. Pit beef isn’t technically barbecue, or so we’re told, because it’s fast cooked over a hot, hot fire rather than slow-cooked.
The Great Road Food Debate: Is pit beef barbecue?
Devotees of both will argue for days about the distinction, but it makes no difference to the taste. Some prefer thick hand-cut slices on white bread, and some love wafer-thin machine cut slices piled on a roll, but whatever the form, no one would ever turn it down, whatever form it takes. Vegetarians have been known to forego even that practice when faced with a pit beef sandwich.
So we stood in line, six feet apart, with the facemasked lunchtime crowd that trailed well out the door at the original Chaps, on Baltimore’s east side. There were construction workers, hospital staff, men and women in suits, families, and even a man with what must have been a VERY well trained service dog in the line.
Soon enough, we were at the counter, then picking up a surprisingly heavy bag to carry out. As promised, the meat was cooked to perfection, piled high on the bun, and seasoned just right. It was way too big and went down way too easy.
The Washington Post reviewed the best pit beef in Maryland and Chaps only got an honorable mention, so I’m sure we have much pleasure waiting on our next visit.
Roast beef sandwiches are something of a regional specialty across the country, and you can find a mouthwatering variety if you keep your eyes open. From Italian beef in Chicago to roast beef po’boys in New Orleans, the Gooch in Seattle to beef on ‘weck in Buffalo, or French dip in Denver to the hot brown in Louisville, you can get your fill of lovingly prepared meat on a bun, out here off the beaten path.
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This article is from Tom and Patti Burkett, our regular Off the Beaten Path reporters. You can hear them each week on The RV Podcast, available on all the major Podcast apps or on our RV Podcast archives page. We also have a special Off the Beaten Path archive page here on the RV Lifestyle Blog. And for a video profile on the Burketts, CLICK HERE