Pity the poor deli. It seems to be in decline with even New York’s venerable Carnegie recently closing. While Phoenix’s restaurant offerings have become generally become more diverse over the past decade, traditional delis have declined here as well. One has closed only to be reborn as a tavern; others have gone out of business entirely. While chain sandwich shops and independent tacos places are sprouting Downtown, one place, Tommy Pastrami, is keeping the flame alive in terms of traditional sandwiches made with ingredients like rye bread and pastrami.
If some ways, Tommy Pastrami feels more like a fast casual interpretation of a deli than an actual deli. It does not have the cafeteria-style service found in traditional delis. It also has as much patio seating as chairs within its small interior. The restaurant fits into one of the counter service spaces where the Collier Center meets Second Street, a block from the Washington / Third Street (westbound) platform and two blocks from the Jefferson / Third Street (eastbound) platform. A bike rack is found outside right by the escalator leading to the second floor.
The decor is mostly red, an homage to the Arizona Diamondbacks, who play home games just a few blocks away at Chase Field. Aside from some faux brick and a sign saying “Times Square,” there’s no effort to be particularly “New Yorky” in the place’s look or feel. With so much emphasis on outdoor seating, this sandwich shop, a second branch of a business started in Orange County, California, feels more sunbelt than subway. The food, however, stands on its own, even if the atmosphere in which it is served might seem somewhat out-of-context.
Traditional delis tend to have expansive menus — not only of their signature sandwiches but also of hearty entrees and daily specials. Fitting its smaller space and fast-casual service model, Tommy Pastrami has a more limited range but stays within a realm that it can execute capably. At the core of the menu are big, meaty sandwiches of pastrami, corned beef, brisket, turkey, and tuna, easily enough to feed two in their original versions. Most are available in more manageable “light” versions that are still big and as “halfers,” which are exactly as they sound.
The namesake meat, pastrami, is an obvious emphasis here. Tommy’s version is a solid one — salty, but not excessively so. A generous number of slices are applied to signature sandwiches such as the Skyscraper with two meats or a classic Reuben, which can be prepared with either pastrami or corned beef. Brisket comes with the choice of either au jus or a mild, tangy barbecue sauce. All sandwiches are available on white or wheat bread, a French roll, or, best of all, rye. The deli’s rye loaves are rich and earthy with plenty of caraway seeds.
Simple sandwiches of just one meat and an optional choice of cheese are also available, as is a grilled cheese with any combination of bread and cheese specified by the customer. Provolone on rye is a logical meeting place between this comfort food classic and deli tradition. Sides can be added a la carte or as part of a combo with a drink. Look for deli staples such as steak fries, eggy potato salad, and creamy coleslaw as the basic choices, but a knish loaded with mashed potatoes and given just a bit of texture with cornmeal is a nice deli alternative.
Soups available each day include chicken, chili, and tomato. The chicken soup, with or without matzo balls, is full of hearty chunks of poultry and vegetables along with a bit of bowtie pasta. The chili is slightly spicy with a rich flavor enveloping the copious beans and chunks of beef (not ground meat) within. The zesty tomato soup is distinctive in terms of having not only solid pieces of tomato, but also bits of sauteed onion and celery amid the otherwise silky texture. Depending on the day of the week, there may also be specials like beef and barley or split pea and ham.
There are also salads and breakfast items; dessert, however, is limited to some packaged cookies at the counter and slices of cheesecake in a refrigerated case. Tommy has a liquor license, although it is used only to sell two-dollar bottles of beer. Since since the deli is open only during daytime, the lack of other beverage options is not unexpected. Maybe Tommy will be open later once the Block 23 development across the street is done. Until then, be thankful a deli lunch is still available even as delis themselves seem to be an endangered species.
201 E. Washington St. #109, Phoenix AZ 85004
Washington / Third Street (westbound) and Jefferson / Third Street (eastbound) stations