"'Diners, Drive Ins and Dives' put us into crazy zone," Creager says. "When they got here, business was good. The next day, it turned into an insane asylum."
Other TV shows followed. Adam Richman of "Man v. Food" visited, as did celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.
Creager said he sells about 300 pit beef sandwiches a day. He's expanded the building 10 times, maintaining the "dive" atmosphere each time. It's grown from one employee to 25. His stand, which used to have no sit-down dining, now seats about 50 people.
On a recent Friday, out-of-town baseball fans packed Chaps around lunchtime. The line stretching out the door included a group of friends from Brockport, N.Y., and a family from Kulpmont, Pa.
"It's awesome," said Darrin Peck, 46, of Brockport, as he chowed down. "We're going to come back here again for lunch tomorrow."
Chaps isn't alone among area pit beef stands. U.S. 40 still has The Cookout in Rosedale, Kirkwood Pit Beef in Catonsville and The Canopy in Ellicott City, among a smattering of other spots. But Creager said the east side is the original home of the slow-cooked, thinly sliced meat.
"This is where it started," he said. "This side of town." Now, he said, he sees pit beef popping up on menus across the country from California to Florida.
Still, some say that Chaps' national reputation can make it harder for other area pit beef stands to catch on.
Shane Shumaker, who owns the Bull Pen in Dundalk and Cockeysville, has challenged Chaps to a blind taste test on radio station 98 Rock, arguing that his beef is the best around.
"Chaps is a Baltimore icon," Shumaker said. "People don't even stop at some of the other places because they're going to Chaps."
Creager said he would prefer to have a pit beef fair featuring all the stands in the Baltimore area instead — with the proceeds going to charity if Shumaker would host it.
Creager still has 17 years left on his lease at the property, where he has been set up with a "nice low rent" thanks to his father-in-law, but he doesn't know how many more years he has left working in the kitchen.
He and Donna have moved to Kingsville, where they live with their two dogs.
"I'm living a really good life. There's nothing I want for," he said. "I have a wonderful wife. I have a beautiful house. I have a successful business. ... It's gone from a little dive to a big dive. I'm proud of that."
If you go
Chaps Pit Beef is at 5801 Pulaski Highway. It is open daily 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Call 410-483-2379.
Chaps' Tiger Sauce
Mix two parts mayonnaise with one part horseradish.
About the series
Postcards from U.S. 40 is a series of occasional articles taking readers on a summer road trip along the historic highway that stretches 220 miles across Maryland. Have a suggestion for where we should go next? Tell us about it at baltimoresun.com/US40Share. Follow the series at baltimoresun.com/postcards.