Is a visit to the newest location of Chaps Pit Beef worth your time? I guess the answer really depends. Do you consider yourself a true Marylander? Does Old Bay course through your veins? Are you ready to follow in the illustrious footsteps of Guy Fieri and the great, sorely missed Anthony Bourdain?
I’ve come to learn that Chaps is considered a state landmark for some Baltimoreans, who treat the pit beef stand in the same way as Natty Boh or the Orioles consistently sucking — just part of the city’s DNA. The original restaurant, first started in 1987, isn’t that old. But it’s become a sort of ambassador for the city, with appearances on “The Wire,” “No Reservations,” and “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” (twice).
So, the fact that one of its first franchises just opened in Frederick? Pretty cool. Plus, pit beef is well-deserving of a more prominent place in the American food lexicon. The smoky dish is as hyperlocal as Kansas City burnt ends but without the same replication. I’ve never seen it outside Baltimore. That’s a shame for other people because it’s delicious, and Chaps does one of the best versions.
The Frederick location carries on that tradition without the certain je ne sais quoi of the original stand in Baltimore. Unlike the mothership, it’s not across the parking lot from a strip club. I couldn’t spot thick hunks of meat being pulled from the pit. But the beef sandwiches still taste the same — tender and a little smoky, unvarnished by excessive seasoning that would detract from the pure flavor of the meat.
You can choose the doneness of your thin-sliced beef, and — like the original store — Chaps in Frederick offers plenty of fixings. Horseradish and thin-sliced raw onion are some classic sandwich toppings, but the store also carries pit barbecue sauce and a special “gold” barbecue sauce, just slightly sweeter than the original. The “tiger” sauce (horseradish and mayonnaise, as far as I could tell) is a good option if you’re looking for horseradish flavor without all of the sinus-clearing qualities. There are pickles, too, and Old Bay, but putting either on the beef sandwich would be slightly blasphemous.
There’s a reason the pit beef sandwich has become an iconic dish of Baltimore, and it lies with its simplicity — perfectly cooked meat on a soft white roll, juices soaking into the starch. It’s hard to beat, but Chaps does have plenty of other options. There’s pit-roasted ham, turkey, and sausage, pork barbecue, and combination sandwiches, plus several options with corned beef.
I tried the Reuben and was struck by how well the cured flavor of the corned beef paired with smokiness from its time over an open flame. The tender meat, sliced thin like the original beef, melted into a mélange of melted Swiss cheese and sauerkraut, with toasted slices of rye supporting the structural integrity of the sandwich.
The sausage is the least remarkable of the meat options at Chaps, but it adds another layer of flavor to specialty sandwiches like The Markie, a beef-turkey-sausage combo that I wolfed down after a family visit to Flying Dog.
Other specialty options aren’t quite as manageable. During an earlier visit, one of my friends ordered the #52 Chaps Special and found himself confronted by a true behemoth of a sandwich — more than 2 pounds of corned beef, ham and original beef, topped by a melty layer of American cheese. The sandwich could have easily been three separate meals, but he nearly finished it (plus an original beef roll), encouraged by the intoxicating blend of meats and my egging him on.
Chaps has does have sides, but they’re secondary to the restaurant’s main, meaty focus. The coleslaw is standard and the homemade macaroni and cheese is perfunctory, all overcooked pasta and Velveeta cheese. It’s better to stick with the Boardwalk-style fries (topped with gravy or cheese, if you like) or a side bag of Utz potato chips. After all, you’re not going there to diet.