Three from the Pulaski Pits
Big Al's Wins This Baltimore Barbecue Battle
There¹s a stretch of Pulaski Highway, right around the city line, that reels out in a lonesome stream of big rigs, country-western joints, girlie bars, and cheap motels. You can find truck parts and X-rated videos and--for some reason--a selection of the best pit-beef eateries in town. Unlike other roadside venues--the local VFW, say, or the volunteer-firefighters¹ hall--Pulaski Highway¹s pits are smokin¹ seven days a week. Looking for something substantial to wrap our little fists around, C.C. and I took to the open road.
A steady drizzle fell as we pulled into the roadside parking lot shared by Little Texas, a country-western dance hall, and our destination. Big Fat Daddy's lives beneath a maroon- and yellow-striped tent (heated in winter!) that contains a steer skull, a few picnic tables and booths, and a wall-sized mural of a cattle drive painted by someone with poor depth perception.
But hey, ambiance don't mean shit when you're talkin' pit beef, Bubba. C.C. grabbed a sandwich of same ($4), and I took hold of a barbecued beef sandwich ($4). We settled ourselves at a picnic table with a view of the motel across the street ("Singles $31, Hot Tubs, Water Beds, Jacuzzi Suites") and a life-size bull on wheels that the guy behind the counter said had been used as a hunting blind.
Big Fat Daddy's has an elaborate fixings bar: red-potato salad, pasta salad, coleslaw, onions, tomatoes, relish, orange wedges, watermelon, and an array of sauces and condiments that includes barbecue sauce, cider vinegar, horseradish sauce, and hot sauce. We added nothing to the beef barbecue but slathered the pit beef with horseradish sauce and raw onion, which seemed only right.
The generous serving of pit beef tasted OK, but it wasn't the medium rare we'd ordered, so the sandwich wasn't as moist or flavorful as it should have been. Meanwhile, the beef barbecue tasted of fingernail-polish remover.
"What is that?" I asked C.C.
She thought for a moment, then went to the fixings table and added cider vinegar to a paper cup of barbecue sauce. She dipped in a finger and tasted. Voila.
Now I know vinegar is an essential ingredient in certain styles of barbecue, but often either cooks add too much of the stuff or everything else cooks down except the vinegar. Whatever the case might have been at Big Fat Daddy's, we tossed the rest of the sandwich and got back into the car.
Within spitting distance from Big Fat Daddy's, Big Al's sits beside a dance club and across from a bargain motel where the late Joseph Palczynski, I'm told, had occasion to hang out. You can eat at a picnic table under a canvas covering or in your car, as we did. We asked for a pit beef, medium rare ($3.75), and a pork barbecue ($4).
What a revelation! The beef--rosy, moist, and fragrant--had the taste of good prime rib, and the serving was enormous, its thicker-than-usual slices still meltingly tender. The pulled pork, almost as generous, tasted perfectly sweet and sour. The juicy pork held its shape enough that we could pick it up and eat it like a sandwich. Primo pit, primo pork.
We had less stomach capacity now but one more place to try. Scenically located beside an exotic-dance club and across the highway from an X-rated video outlet, Chaps is the most substantial of the three barbecue houses, a cinder-block box with windows, picnic tables, music, and a couple of video games.
C.C. wasn't crazy about Chaps' barbecue-beef sandwich ($3.89). The sauce tasted sweet, but there was so much of the sugary liquid that the bun fell apart. The sandwich reminded me more of a sloppy Joe than a barbecue sandwich. And its texture wasn't what we expected: The menu advertised "minced beef," but the sandwich served to us contained hunks and slices. This didn't bother me, but C.C. found it annoying. I, however, liked the pit beef's intensely smoky flavor and thick medium-rare slices. But the serving size and meaty flavor, while good, paled beside Big Al's.
Who'd have thought there'd be such variety in pit beef, and all within a couple of miles? Of course, these joints offer stuff besides pit beef and barbecue. You'll find burgers, franks, ham, sausage, chicken, turkey, and, at Big Al's, corned beef. (I will not eat corned beef on Pulaski Highway--sorry, deli is sacred to me--but we did try a $5 crab cake at Big Fat Daddy's. Big mistake.) You'll also find the usual sides, including Ocean City-style fries, slaw, potato salad, baked beans, corn on the cob (in season), and more.
Protein-heavy and glutted with girlie bars, C.C. and I smacked our lips and headed back toward town.