It's been one heck of a year for Heck's Cafe.
A January 13, 1998, blaze didn't destroy the historic brick building in Ohio City that has been the restaurant's home for the past quarter-century. Nevertheless, the fire took a heavy toll on the kitchen and caused extensive smoke damage throughout the restaurant's three small dining areas.
As a result, Heck's was closed until October while owner Steve Slifko and managers Becky McKenzie and Lee Popp scrubbed, stripped woodwork, painted, wallpapered, and redecorated. Tables and chairs were replaced, new artwork was hung, and fresh greenery was installed in the garden room. The staff's labors of love have done nothing but add more layers of character to the charming little dining spot, which is now brighter but every bit as cozy as before.
McKenzie says that, far from discouraging customers, the temporary closure seemed to create a pent-up demand for Heck's popular hamburgers.
"We've had a steady stream of people coming in since we reopened, desperate for their burger fix!" she says.
It's no wonder. Heck's was among the first Cleveland-area restaurants to specialize in huge "gourmet" burgers during the early 1970s. At one time, founder John Saile had Heck's locations in Rocky River and the Eton Collection as well as Ohio City, and he even launched a successful catering business. Although those ventures are no longer affiliated with Slifko's restaurant, and several other local eateries have shouldered their way into its niche, plenty of Northeast Ohioans still consider Heck's to be the burger king. (It doesn't hurt that, with its solid selection of beers and wines, Heck's is one of the few places where you can sip a glass of red with your burger.)
With the help of an intrepid band of meat-eaters, I've worked my way through several of the menu's ten 8-ounce burgers during the past few weeks. We've sampled the simple Heckburger, an unadorned, charbroiled patty mounted on a Kaiser roll; a sublime Rocky River Burger with mushrooms, bacon, Swiss cheese, and sour cream; the Roque Burger with bacon and a Roquefort-and-sour-cream dressing; and a sophisticated Burger au Poivre crowned with freshly ground black pepper, grilled onions, Worcestershire sauce, and sour cream.
In every case, the ground-round-steak patties were beefy and juicy (even when cooked medium-well to remove any hint of pink), and had a pleasant, smoky tang from the grill. Toppings were well prepared and generously applied, and the substantial Kaiser rolls were just the ticket for holding the whole, sometimes messy, shebang together long enough to transport it to the mouth.
In other words, these are some fine burgers.
I've also developed a fondness for the delicious Seared Tuna Burger, a large, tender, rare tuna steak on a dark slab of Pumpernickel, topped with a savory ginger-garlic mayonnaise. The sandwich is a new addition to the menu and is likely to become a favorite. While it is arguably a more health-conscious choice than a burger, no carnivore would feel deprived with this beauty on his or her plate.
As "go-withs," we've tried a variety of appetizers, salads, and side dishes, some of which are a far cry from the humble French fry (with which, incidentally, Heck's does a fine job).
We've enjoyed Artichoke Hearts Alouette, four tender, cooked artichoke hearts that the kitchen tops with a dab of herbed cream cheese, lightly breads, and deep fries.
A twice-baked potato was also a good choice. While the outer potato shell was crisp, the whipped potato piled up inside it was smooth and creamy.
We were less satisfied with an order of stuffed potato skins. The four baseball-sized skins were amply filled with crisp chopped bacon and cheddar cheese, but they apparently had been sitting in the kitchen too long and were cold when they arrived. Our server was apologetic and quick to take them back for a warm-up. When they reappeared, they were marginally warmer, but the reheating had made them very dry and tough, and a little plastic cup of sour cream on the side was not enough to revive them.
In a nod to the food pyramid, we also decided to share a dinner salad as a side dish. We considered a traditional Caesar salad and the delicious-sounding Magnolia Chicken Salad with chicken, spinach, lettuces, mushrooms, walnuts, and mandarin oranges, topped with an apricot dressing, before settling on the Key West Mango Salad. While we enjoyed the mix of crisp greens topped with creamy crumbles of feta cheese and plenty of thinly sliced almonds, we were sad to find only a few cubes of less-than-perfectly-ripe mango. The salad was unnecessarily garnished with several pale, hard tomato wedges that added nothing to its taste. Fortunately, the salad dressing, a fruity raspberry vinaigrette, imparted some of the flavorful punch the mango lacked.
Kitchen manager Tom Moore and chefs Steve Bozsa and Sergio Reynaj know that not everyone thinks burgers make the world go round, so in addition to the salads they also offer eight dinner entrees, like ratatouille and Chicken Dijon. While I had to twist some arms to get my volunteers to bypass the savory burgers in favor of these, I eventually prevailed.
Sadly for us, the dishes proved disappointing. The Chicken Dijon, a modest portion of bow-tie pasta in an indistinct garlic-Dijon mustard sauce, was topped with a few pieces of chicken breast, several bits of red pepper and tomato, and a couple of black olives. The dish was bland and, at $16.25, overpriced.
The ratatouille, at $12.50, wasn't much better. About one cup of stewed eggplant, yellow squash, zucchini, and onions, in a thin tomato sauce, was ladled over a bowl of linguine and dusted with chopped parsley. We could not discern the taste of olive oil, garlic, or other herbs that might lend it flavor, and while that allowed the mild taste of the vegetables to come through, it made for a pretty uninteresting dish.
Things looked up again with dessert. We finished our meals with two different creations from Slices, a Cleveland Heights bakery that supplies some of Heck's desserts. (The restaurant's bread pudding is made in-house; the rest of the baked goods come from Bit of New York in Hinckley.)
Vertical Lemon Cake was four layers of tender yellow cake separated by lemon custard and topped with a very sweet, lemon-scented buttercream frosting. Close inspection revealed that the layers, rather than running horizontally, really were stacked up vertically, as the name implies. How such a feat was accomplished is clearly something for a physicist or philosopher to ponder, not a humble diner.
Less puzzling but equally tasty was a slice of Chocolate-Raspberry Cheesecake. The wonderfully creamy vanilla cheesecake had a translucent raspberry glaze and was drizzled with sweet chocolate. Between the cake and its chocolate-crumb crust ran a layer of whole raspberries. The overall effect was a pleasant balance of sweet and tart flavors, and smooth and crisp textures.
Heck's coffee is also worth mentioning. The restaurant's special blend of beans, cinnamon, cocoa, and chicory makes for a hearty, flavorful cuppa joe that, for the virtuous, could almost take the place of a sugary dessert. If you don't like flavored coffees, stick to the decaf.
The final word? Although the more ambitious menu items are pricey and lackluster, there's no question that Heck's does right by burgers. Stick with the basics here, and you won't go wrong.
Heck's Cafe. 2927 Bridge Avenue, Cleveland (Ohio City). 216-861-5464. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Sandwiches and appetizers only, 3 p.m.-5 p.m. daily. Dinner 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday; until 10:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; until 11:30 p.m. Thursday; until midnight Friday and Saturday. Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Artichoke Hearts Alouette $6.95
Potato Skins $5.95
Twice-Baked Potato $2.35
Key West Mango Salad $9.95
The Heckburger $5.35
Rocky River Burger $6.65
Roque Burger $6.65
Burger au Poivre $6.45
Chicken Dijon $16.25
Vertical Lemon Cake $3.95
Chocolate-Raspberry Cheesecake $3.95
Heck's Special Blend Coffee $1.50