Something about delis makes you want to start an argument.
Maybe it’s the harsh florescent lighting, which triggers unresolved hostilities from high school debate. Or maybe the irascible, no-guff nature of these meat emporiums — even fictional ones like John Belushi’s “Samurai Delicatessen” — rubs off on customers. Or maybe we’ve watched the Katz’s scene in “When Harry Met Sally” a few too many times.
Whatever the reason, my friends Jim and Lou and I have launched into a debate about the merits of the Jimmy Mayo’s Italian Hoagie at Heckman’s Delicatessen in Bethesda. Jim and I find the crusty baguette — bloated with bologna, Italian salami, pepperoni, Italian hot ham, provolone, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and Italian dressing — a perfectly acceptable bite. It’s the kind of sandwich you pretend to hate in public but secretly devour alone, in the midnight quiet of your kitchen, careful to sweep away the incriminating crumbs.
But Lou thinks we’ve lost touch with reality — or least our palate. He hates the mayo in particular. He’s a Hellmann’s man; one day he’ll probably replace his bone marrow with the stuff. He’s pretty certain the offending spread is Miracle Whip or Duke’s. Which launches us into a whole other debate as to the brand of mayo/dressing slathered on the semi-stale baguette. Lou goes with Duke’s, Jim picks Hellmann’s and I take Miracle Whip, mostly for argument’s sake.
“Unfortunately,” our gracious waitress says, “all of you are wrong.” The spread in question is a Nugget Brand “heavy duty” mayonnaise, distributed by the Maryland-based Saval Foodservice. The disappointment around the table is palpable: a debate with no winner.
If there’s a winner at Heckman’s, it is the delicatessen’s line of sandwiches, prepared mostly from meats roasted, brined, smoked and/or steamed in-house. Owner and namesake Ronnie Heckman seems to embrace the DIY approach as more a hum-drum responsibility than his shot at culinary greatness. He refuses to call himself “chef,” even though he and friend Marc Rosemond have both had a hand in creating the menu at Heckman’s. His tough, ego-less talk reminds me that Heckman comes from the world of sports, where self-promoters quickly find themselves standing alone and unprotected in a locker room, maybe even on the field.
Heckman is no RGIII. He was a standout offensive lineman at Rockville High School and would have continued on that path in college if it weren’t for a back injury. Instead of gridiron glories, he started a summer job working at Brooklyn’s Deli in Potomac. “I wanted to be a sports agent,” Heckman, 25, says of his career before the deli. “My dream job was to be on ESPN one day.”
ESPN still plays a role in Heckman’s current vocation: The channel is regularly beamed on the televisions inside the deli and outside on the patio, dubbed the Sideline Cafe. You can watch the game with a shot of Bulleit rye or a Manhattan from a full bar that, while no match to the spirits program at DGS Delicatessen, still shoves a dagger into the old Carnegie Deli slogan: “Beer is the wine of a great deli!” A few ho-hum beers can be purchased at Heckman’s, too, though mostly in bottle form since the taps never worked during my visits.
Ronnie Heckman’s Johnny-come-lately status seems to make him less tradition-bound than others in the deli business. Heckman’s isn’t an homage to the Jewish delis of Manhattan, although the place does mimic many of the elements you’ll find at Katz’s or Carnegie: framed photos on the wall (though no obvious celebrities), a long list of traditional and specialty sandwiches, and the mandatory house-made cheesecake. At the same time, the deli exudes the musky air of a sports bar, particularly on the patio where you’re likely to find a brood of middle-aged dudes puffing away on cigars and putting away cocktails as the weekend game flickers in the background.
Some of the archetypal deli plates here are forgettable, such as the potato latkes (soft and spongy, as if they retain too much moisture), the noodle kugel (rubbery, with barely a hint of creaminess) and the cheesecake (light, not rich, with a funky aftertaste).
Others carry on the tradition well, like the whitefish salad (creamy, salty, perfect with the accompanying bagel and garnishes) and the potato knish (a thin, browned pastry shell concealing a well-seasoned filling). The matzo ball soup, with a light, flavorful broth, would have been ideal with fluffier dumplings, just as the mousse-like chopped liver would have fared better with fresher pita bread, not the hardened little triangles that you could use as door stops.
Heckman’s serves breakfast all day, which is less a promise than a threat when it comes to the challah French toast. My to-go slices were almost blackened, to the point that no syrup could drown out their bitterness (not even the Smucker’s sugar-free “Breakfast Syrup,” a viscous goop that I was handed). Safer to stick with the crackly, chewy bagels, sourced from Georgetown Bagelry, or the fat little blintzes, these crispy crepes concealing a rich cheese filling sweetened with orange zest.
Don’t be tempted by Marc’s fried chicken, which exposed the kitchen’s weakness at the deep fryer; the underseasoned bird smacked of oil. Go straight to the sandwich list, built mostly on breads sourced outside the restaurant. (The rye and marble rye are baked in-house). Heckman’s has a knack for stacking meats: Using a challah roll as the base, the Doc softens the aggressively spiced pleasures of the house-made pastrami with lean, roasted turkey. The Swizz, served on a Kaiser roll, plays luscious, pull-apart brisket off good, grilled roast beef.
Look for any sandwich based on brisket. The succulent, well-trimmed corned beef at the heart of Heckman’s Reuben speaks without the sodium static of an overbrined brisket. The Copperman’s Delight clearly takes delight in the pastrami, piling the meat high on grilled rye with only minimal condiment and slaw interference. Ronnie Heckman seems to understand the singularity of his pastrami: He won’t reveal ingredient one of his brisket rub.
I see another debate brewing. What spices does Heckman’s use? I’ll bet on coarse black pepper, coriander seeds and . . .
4914 Cordell Ave., Bethesda. 240-800-4879. www.heckmansdeli.com.
Hours: Sunday-Wednesday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Bethesda, with a half-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Sandwiches $5-$23; entrees $14-$16.