Not So Starving Artists: Katie Boyts Goes Out West to Pioneer Pit Beef

Here’s the basic moral of this story: Don’t order turkey at a pit beef place. Just the beef.

If you don’t have time to read the rest of this, I totally understand, there’s no hard feelings, and you can now leave knowing that you have learned something very valuable. You’re welcome. If you are still reading… I’m totally flattered and hope I don’t disappoint. This week in the Not So Starving Artists series, Chris Attenborough and I visited what is basically a shack out west of the city on Johnnycake Road, Pioneer Pit Beef.

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In case you’re not quite up on your meat cuisine (no judgement), pit beef is basically Maryland’s form of barbeque, one of those iconic region-specific dishes that is nearly impossible to find outside of the state. Typically made out of the top roast of the cow and grilled directly over charcoal, it’s sliced deli-style and piled high onto a kaiser roll. The aim is a tender, well-seasoned, rare result with a bit of smoky flavor only around the edges. Common toppings are as simple as the meat itself – raw onions, horseradish mayo, perhaps tomatoes, maybe lettuce or pickles.

Pioneer Pit Beef was recommended to us by a Mr. Tony Venne, a friend and local designer, who turns out to be a bit of a local authority on pit beef. I about burst with enthusiasm when he shared with me his spreadsheet on pit beef spots around Baltimore, which he agreed to let me share here, in all its splendor because I’m a sucker for a spreadsheet.

Tony Venne's Pit Beef Spread Sheet

Tony Venne’s Pit Beef Spread Sheet

Chris and I pulled up to Pioneer Pit Beef and were immediately enchanted by the the yellow and green building with its three picnic tables out front, and the swaths of cars careening by, Rolling Road to its south, I-70 to its north. The exterior was decorated with a painting of a wagon, big black lettering advertising its basic premise, “PIT BEEF”, and an amazing large metal cut-out of a pit beef sandwich bolted to the entrance. It was all oddly beautiful.

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The interior consists of a short, narrow hallway for the guests, and a small kitchen for the friendly staff. You enter in one end of the hallway, surrounded by informative signs: “CASH ONLY”, “WE BUY FIREWOOD”, and a few photo samples of the menu providing visuals to the difference between the “super” sandwich and the “regular”. The difference: more beef. There are two windows inside. The first one is where you place your order, and the meat is sliced to order. The second is where you pay. It is a one-way street, and this is a place where people do not meander, hem hawing about the menu, asking questions about the sourcing of beef. You order, you pay, you eat.

Once inside, I noticed they offered pit turkey, and I thought, “Perhaps turkey would diversify the review. Perhaps this will be revelatory.” I thought I might be the one to discover the joys of pit turkey! So I opted for the turkey sandwich as Chris ordered a medium-rare regular beef sandwich, both with the tiger sauce (horseradish mayo) and onions. And of course an order of gravy fries.

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At the first window, the man at the slicer handed me a slice of turkey to sample before committing, which is customary. The sampling allows you the option of changing your mind, maybe you’re into the medium that day so you opt for the rare. I recognize the risk of sounding like an asshole for saying this, but… It reminded me of when you order a bottle of wine at restaurants, and they pour you a small amount to taste for approval, which I always find mildly awkward. So you do the obligatory douchey swirling thing and drink it down, and then you nod. You say “yes, it’s lovely” and you nod. I’ve never seen anyone NOT nod. You just don’t do that. You don’t ask for another bottle. You nod.

So as he handed me the slice of turkey, I felt the same compulsion… The turkey was surprisingly hot and had a weird texture, too soft and a bit slimy. He was so nice though, and there was only one way out. There were people behind us, staring at us, their eyes burning holes in my neck saying “Make a choice already you amateur!” So I did the only thing I could think of – I nodded. And proceeded down the short one-way hallway.

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We sat at the outdoor picnic tables, with the sound of traffic in the background, watching people come and go out of the building with ease. I guarantee you that not one of them ordered the turkey. Because they are smarter than me.

The pit beef was tasty and juicy, the kaiser roll soft, tasting fresh and soaking up the juices with ease. The horseradish gave it a welcome boost. Having just returned from a trip to Texas, eating heaps of Texas-style barbeque, in all its smoky-brisket, tomato-based bbq sauce, the pit beef sat in such stark contrast. There was no mask of sauce or smoke. It was either cooked to your liking or not. You either like beef or you don’t. And we liked the beef. The gravy fries with gravy tasted delicious, because it’s gravy AND fries.

Then there was the turkey. I really did try. I grabbed different bottles of condiments – ketchup, Tabasco, their barbeque sauce which tasted like a raspberry vinaigrette. I ate over half the sandwich in an attempt to like it, but the weird texture and sliminess didn’t go away. It didn’t really taste like turkey, more like reconstituted “turkey” loaf. Chris joked that if he ever opened a pit beef spot, he would put a turkey like this on the menu solely as a prank to punish anyone who actually ordered it because no one goes to a place called PIT BEEF and orders turkey. Except me, apparently.

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I asked our pit beef expert Tony for tips, in retrospect, recognizing that I needed help for when I return. In reply (I paraphrase):

  • Well for starters, don’t order the turkey.
  • Don’t order your sandwich to-go. The beef continues cooking as it sits and a medium-rare beef will end up medium 20 minutes later in its wrapper.
  • Avoid cheese, ketchup and bbq sauce.
  • Add things like pickles, onions, or horseradish.
  • Also here is a shitty (but hilarious) video of America’s test kitchen discussing pit beef: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3a90fWS24FY.

Take Tony’s advice, and if you’re out west and if you like beef, stop at Pioneer Pit Beef and marvel at the straightforward design of this regional classic. But steer clear of the turkey, which may or may not be Chris Attenborough attempting to play a prank on you.

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Author Katie Boyts is a pastry chef with a love of affordable carbs and the host of the Baltimore chapter of CreativeMornings

All photos by Chris Attenborough.