The Washington Post

First Bite: Attman’s Delicatessen

The Cloak & Dagger sandwich at Attman's Deli. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The pickle barrels marked “half-sour” and “full-sour” suggest a deli that knows what it’s doing, while a glance at the sandwich board makes this eater laugh. One of the many choices at Attman’s Delicatessen, the Potomac branch of the Baltimore institution, packs corned beef and chopped liver between slices of rye bread.

“Gay Liveration” can be yours for $13.99.

Attman’s is the latest in a string of delis at the same location at the Cabin John Shopping Center & Mall. The current source of gefilte fish and pastrami comes with the longest pedigree. A customer can’t help but pick up some history about Attman’s from the front wall dressed with framed news stories and photographs, mostly of long-past Maryland pols and some stretching back to the Baltimore brand’s earliest days. (Attman’s rolled out in 1915.)

Be sure to start a meal with some of those pickles, which are terrific; my preference is for the bright-green half-sours. The deli’s matzo ball soup proves simple comfort, too, gently flavored with carrots, celery and chicken (although the kitchen could use a lighter hand with the salt). As for the sides, potato knishes are big and greasier than you want them to be; onion rings taste as if they hopped out of a freezer and into a fryer; coleslaw is crisp and fresh but also bland.

The biggest disappointment? The dry corned beef. “Melts in your mouth” teases the neon sign above the deli counter. Even when I ask for “fatty” corned beef, the stack of sliced meat arrives lean. Thus my preference is a combination sandwich, maybe the Cloak & Dagger. It’s built with corned beef but includes Russian dressing and coleslaw — more juice, in other words.

Better is the creamy smoked whitefish salad, served with a distinctive toasted bagel.

The front of Attman’s, which recently added breakfast hours, has open seating. Patrons interested in table service head to the rear dining room, warmed up with black-and-white photographs of Charm City and watched over by good-natured but under-informed servers in blue jackets. Who bakes the cheesecake? Not sure. Have they been to the original Attman’s? No, sir.

The young men behind the deli counter are quick with a smile and a slice of cheesecake, which we eventually learn comes from Brooklyn. For an echt Baltimore finish, however, ask for a chocolate-top cookie: shortbread with a swirl of chocolate frosting and as sweet as it sounds.

7913 Tuckerman Lane, Potomac. 301-765-3354. Regular-size deli sandwiches, $7.99 to $11.99.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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