City Paper is not for tourists
The prevailing wisdom goes something like this: If you want the best barbecue the area has to offer, you must drive down to Southern Maryland. Two weeks ago, the wife, some friends, and I did just that, taking two separate vehicles to Bear Creek Open Pit BBQ in Callaway, which is just a few miles from where the Chesapeake sloshes up on the shores of the southern-most tip of Maryland. It’s a long drive for lunch.
Let me be the first to say: You can have mediocre barbecue much closer to home.
Bear Creek’s decor is hunting-lodge chic. There’s a display case filled with old guns and shell casings. There’s a diorama over the buffet table of a bear attacking some sort of wild cat. There’s a giant moose staring benevolently at you from its perch over the fireplace. This is no place for PETA.
As its name states, Bear Creek deals in “open pit” barbecue, which is essentially a giant uncovered, wood-fired grill that releases its smoke straight into an equally giant hood. This cooking method differs from a barbecue smoker, in which the beef, pork, or whatever is trapped inside some contraption (maybe a converted oil drum, maybe some pricey piece of equipment from Barbeques Galore) until the smoke and meat are one.
The smoke penetration at Bear Creek is no where near as deep, and we sampled widely from the menu. We ordered pork ribs, brisket, pulled pork, sausage, even a Frito pie. We ordered as if we’d never eat again.
The ribs were the star; they boasted a ruggedly charred exterior, which gave way to a pink, smoky flesh that offered just the right amount of resistance when you tore it away from the bone. The brisket slices, by contrast, were only adequate; they were these too-thin ribbons of beef with minimal smoke penetration and little juicy, flavorful fat. Neither the pork nor the beef were adequately seasoned, which would have improved both dramatically. The pulled pork didn’t rate anywhere near the stuff they produce at Buz and Ned’s in Richmond, which may not be a fair comparison, but there you have it.
The sausage was an outright disaster. Soft and undercooked, the link’s lone saving grace was its spice level, which still wasn’t enough to make me eat more than one nubbin.
There’s always a calculation one has to make when confronted with the fact that you’ve just invested so many hours of your waking day on a single meal, particularly when the meal turns out to be so utterly average. You must take the number of different entrees you ordered (five, in our case) and multiple that number by the average rating you gave for all the dishes on a 1-to-5 scale (2.1 average, based on the following ratings: pork, 3.5; beef, 2; pulled pork, 2; sausage, 1; Frito pie, 2) and divide by the hours invested (five). If your score is less than 2.0, then you wasted your time.
My score was 2.1. So there you have it: Scientific evidence that it’s worth driving, just barely, to Bear Creek for barbecue. Unless, of course, you don’t believe in science.