Five More Washington D.C. Delis
by Richard Blackman
Opinion 1: Washington area deli food can’t hold a candle to the best of New York. Opinion 2: Good mustard can make any deli meat taste pretty good.
Those were my thoughts after my 2nd tour of five Washington D.C. area delis in search of the best corned beef, pastrami, brisket and pickles in the Washington area.
It’s 9am on a Sunday morning and Gary, Malcolm, Larry and I, elementary school friends (we’re in our 60s now), venture out in Gary’s 55 mpg Prius to visit five delis. Over the past 6 years, we’ve taken yearly trips to New York to review eight delis in two days. Two years ago we were disappointed with our visit to five DC area delis. Today we decided to visit Attman’s, Corned Beef King, Woodside Deli, Heckman’s and Celebrity Delly. We were again disappointed, but did experience one highlight.
Our first stop at 9:15am was Attman’s in Potomac. Despite mixed reviews from friends and on the internet, we had high hopes because we enjoyed the original Attman’s in Baltimore on a previous trip. Attman’s Potomac has a pleasant décor with lots of bright signs. There are about 10 tables in the front room, then a deli case, and then a back room with a big bright neon sign designating it as “the Kibbitz room.” There are 10 tables in the Kibbitz Room, which was mostly empty when we arrived. There is much more room and light than at the Baltimore Attman’s, but there was no yummy deli smell like Baltimore. I wanted to sit in the Kibbitz room but the Attman’s people wanted us to sit in front. I kept insisting, and despite annoying my three deli partners (I assume the Attman’s people were also annoyed), management agreed to let us sit in their Kibbitz room. Presumably, they wanted us to sit in the front to attract potential diners, or maybe they wanted to keep the back area closed until business picked up, but in fact there was a group at one of the back tables – they obviously received special treatment while we had to talk our way into the Kibbitz room – this was not a good start.
We ordered the same meal we’ve had at each of the 36 delis we’ve previously reviewed: one pastrami, one corned beef and one brisket sandwich, each cut into fourths, with sides of coleslaw and potato salad and the standard half- and full-sour pickles; for reasons unknown, we threw in a potato knish at this stop for good measure. But – surprise -- their brisket wouldn’t be ready for another hour. This was especially annoying since I had called the night before to make sure they’d have a full menu at 9. When the sandwiches came, Larry brought out his digital kitchen scale so we could weigh each sandwich and determine the price per ounce ($1.27 per ounce for the pastrami). (See all deli costs.) We had ordered a hot dog to split in lieu of the brisket. The highlights of the meal were the knish and the hot dog. We did like the Attman’s brand mustard. We considered everything else mediocre. The mushy potato salad and the coleslaw were, similar to most delis, not really worth getting. The corned beef and pastrami were just OK. The knish was good but not great, as was the hot dog, although Gary liked the latter. The pickles (and we had to remind the waitress to bring them) were OK. The seltzer had an off taste. But maybe the real lowlight of the trip was having to listen to “Sleigh Ride” on Attman’s in-house sound system. We were astonished. Christmas music at a deli in March? Marty, the manager, explained that it was an anomaly of all the playlist systems. But still!!!!
Overall, we were surprised by the mediocre quality of the food, given that we had a much better experience at the Baltimore Attman’s. We asked Marty whether the two restaurants used the same source for all their food. He explained that this varied by item, and changed throughout the year. For some items, the two locations sometimes used the same source; at other times, they used different sources. Marty also explained that some items the Baltimore Attman’s bought were sourced from New York, and he couldn’t get them in Potomac. We wondered why a NY wholesaler would ship 200 miles to Baltimore but not 240 miles to Potomac.
Our next stop was Corned Beef King in Olney, Md. In addition to their deli, which operates out of an Exxon gas station convenience store, of all places, Corned Beef King runs a food truck on weekdays at the Farm Women’s Market in Bethesda. In the small Exxon store, they have all the typical sundries, including the wall-to-wall refrigerated cases of soft drinks, Gatorade, and bottled water.
The store also has the Corned Beef King deli counter, which appears to be independently owned. Seltzer wasn’t an option, so we had to buy bottled water at the gas station counter. We sat at two of their four small tables for two. We ordered at the deli counter, and brought our sandwiches to the table. It is hard to imagine eating deli food in a gas station, but as we each delved into our quarter sandwiches, the first thought was how much more flavorful they were than the Attman’s sandwiches. All three sandwiches were delicious. Even the brisket, which we’ve found to be dry and tasteless at most delis, was juicy and thick here. Malcolm thought it was a bit too fatty, but the rest of us were impressed. Their corned beef and pastrami was comparable to what you can expect in a good New York deli and we would highly recommend both if you are in the Washington area. We weren’t excited about the rye bread, which was chewy and bland, but it didn’t diminish the meat quality. The music here was “the Doors” and some other heavy metal music – appropriate for a gas station. There was definitely no Christmas music. The potato salad (with skin), coleslaw and pickles were again fair at best. Their prices were the best of our trip. The brisket was 80 cents per ounce and the pastrami came in at $1 per oz.
On the potato salad and coleslaw issue, which we found mediocre at most places, we rarely agreed on how much we liked one or the other. Larry surmised that our tastes in potato salad and coleslaw depend on how similar it is to what we ate when we were kids. (Crisp or creamy, with celery seed or without, etc.) In short, each of us has a different vision of the perfect potato salad or coleslaw. However, we all agreed the potato salad at New Jersey’s “Goodman’s Deli”, which makes its own, and which we had on two previous trips, was terrific.
At 11:50 we headed for Woodside Deli in Silver Spring. We had debated whether to go there since they don’t carry brisket and we had heard that it wasn’t “the deli” it used to be. In the end we decided to go since it’s been an “institution” in the Washington area since 1947. If they’ve been in business for nearly 70 years, they must be doing something right. We arrived at 12:20 and found a line of 10 people in front of us waiting for seating. We finally got seated after 20 minutes, even though it seemed there were a bunch of empty tables in the somewhat cramped restaurant which held about 25 tables. Most people were eating breakfast food and it looked delicious. But breakfast was not for us – we were sticking with our regular order. On the menu was a note: “If you’re not served in 5 minutes, you’ll be served in 6, 8 or 10 minutes. Enjoy and relax.” Management has a sense of humor. The fast-talking waitress/manager was efficient and fun. After we ordered, they brought out a bowl of crisp pickles. The pickles were tasty but with a sharp aftertaste. The potato salad had skin, but wasn’t real tasty, nor was the creamy coleslaw. Both were similar to the mediocre sides we’ve had at most delis though Malcolm did like the potato salad. The corned beef and pastrami were a bit on the chewy side, and it reminded some of us of supermarket deli meat. Like Attman’s there was no brisket. At this point, we were no longer in the mood for deli and Woodside was kind of a downer after the fine sandwiches at Corned Beef King. However, on previous trips, we’ve done as many as 8 delis in 2 days, and we believed we were still able to judge fairly.
Pastrami at Heckman's
Next, we drove to Heckman’s, the newish deli in Bethesda, Md where we arrived at 2pm to a mostly full restaurant. Heckman’s is a new bright narrow restaurant with seating for about 30 at plain small tables in front, followed by a small “faux” deli counter, and then tables for another 30 in back. It had been highly recommended by a number of our acquaintances. Their seltzer, similar to Woodside’s seltzer, was fine, but nothing special. The pickles were crisp and pretty good. The sandwiches came out almost cold. Larry suggested that if we were going to get cold sandwiches, we might as well eat bologna. The brisket was thick cut and tender, but not particularly tasty. The pastrami and corned beef were similar to Attman’s – by turns cold, fatty, dry, and just mediocre, as were the sides. The brisket likewise disappointed, with a salty, cafeteria-like flavor. The thick cut bread at Heckman’s was the one highlight. It had an excellent crust, and we guessed it may have come from one of the local Bethesda bakeries.
Our last stop of the day was Celebrity Delly in Northern Virginia. During the car ride Malcolm reiterated his concern that no respectable deli would call itself a “Delly.” Was this a sign of things to come? Celebrity closes at 4pm on Sundays, so I had called the night before to make sure they would still have a full menu if we got there at 3pm. I was assured that they would. The narrow, dark, restaurant was about half full when we arrived and looked more like a pub than a deli, with worn wood chairs and tables. The music was loud and obtrusive. It didn’t seem at all like a deli. Maybe this was the difference between a “deli” and a “delly.” The waitress informed us that they were out of rye bread and pickles. “I don’t know who told you we’d have everything, because when it’s late we run out of a lot of things,” she admonished. I wanted to leave immediately. Larry and Malcolm would have also, but Gary insisted that since we were already there, we should stay. “Our readers would want to know about the food,” Gary said. To Celebrity’s credit, the substitute for rye bread was pumpernickel which wasn’t bad. The meat was not so terrific. All 3 meats were a bit rubbery and none stood out for its flavor. At this point—to be sure, our fifth stop of the day-- we felt that eating the mediocre sandwiches had become a chore. We were done. The potato salad and coleslaw were, as expected, unremarkable, though Malcolm alone thought the potato salad was quite good.
Where would we go back? There is no contest. If we wanted the best deli sandwiches in the DC area, closest to New York quality, it would be Corned Beef King. Given that it is located in a gas station, we’d suggest take-out rather than eat-in. Attman’s? Larry said he liked the matzo ball soup he’d had previously, so maybe if we were in the area we’d try there again, but not for the deli meat; the Baltimore Attman’s would be the better choice. Across the street from Heckman’s are an Indian and an Afghan restaurant at which I’ve had outstanding meals. In addition, there are lots of other good restaurants within walking distance, so I’m not sure about a return to Heckman’s. We might want to go back to Woodside for breakfast (waffles, pancakes), but not for the deli sandwiches. None of us would consider returning to Celebrity. As for sides, you won’t be disappointed as long as you keep your expectations low, very low. And it would seem that you cannot get a really good pickle. On our previous DC tour, we picked Parkway Deli in Silver Spring as offering the best “true deli” experience. But at the end of the day, while you can get a passable deli sandwich in DC, if you want the best, you really need to go north to the New York-Jersey area.