Swimming in the scent of caraway and cardamom, spice-crusted slabs of tender hand-carved brisket ooze with glistening, smoky fat. It's hard to believe that a sandwich this good might soon have to wander in search of a proper home. And while that may be a culturally poignant notion, Little Pickle deserves better than to live its life as an itinerant Jewish deli.
If it were any other time or place, this sandwich alone would instantly cement Rick Phillips and Aaron May's latest project as a permanent, beloved fixture on the Valley's restaurant scene. But in this post-pandemic Phoenix, crafting great food is the easy part and figuring out how to turn it into a sustainable business is where the challenge lies.
Little Pickle has a fighting chance thanks to an awful lot of veteran know-how. Phillips is known locally for MercBar, Bootleggers, and the Arizona Taco Festival. May launched Over Easy, Goodwood Tavern, and The Lodge Sasquatch Kitchen before finding fame on the Food Network. Between them, they've run enough restaurants over the years to fill the glass canyons of The Esplanade multiple times over.
And yet, when the duo chose this posh Biltmore development to launch Little Pickle — Phillips handling the day-to-day, May consulting remotely from California — the market felt so uncertain that they opted to workshop the idea first.
Little Pickle's storefront home is slated for demolition in May as part of The Esplanade's forthcoming renovation, but while it may be a pop-up, it doesn't look the part. A room that once housed popular watering hole Ten has thrown out the brick archways and welcomed in the sunlight, illuminating an airy, colorful space with a smattering of tables, orange accents, and a wall dedicated to Keith Haring.
On the surface, Little Pickle is less Jewish history and more Jewish kitsch, from the "Matzo Baller" T-shirts to the photos of Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel that line a makeshift conference table upstairs. But don't be fooled. Deli superfans who pine for the full-fledged Barney Greengrass or Canter's experience with sablefish and noodle kugel would do well to recognize that Little Pickle wraps a weekday coffee and sandwich shop format around a Jewish deli's soul. Get too haughty about what is and isn't "proper" and you'll be turning your nose up at some glittering gems laid out before you.
It starts with the bagel. Phillips subscribes to the theory that water from New York is key. I'm more inclined to credit institutional knowledge, but whether it's a matter of nature or nurture, the bagels he slings are stellar. They're made to Phillips' specifications by a buddy back in New York, par-cooked, shipped to Arizona, and finished in the oven on site. They've got the thick skin, resilient chew, and telltale density that's so elusive in this town.
The house-made cream cheese will come as a pleasant surprise to those who think that step one in making cream cheese is buying cream cheese. It's clean and light, boasting the natural sweetness of fresh cream rather than the cheesy funk of a brick of Philly. Slivered onions and a smattering of capers provide the requisite pungent pop, but this is all setting the stage for the smoked salmon, which is straight-up fantastic.
Phillips' smoked salmon isn't rocket science. It's cured in-house and cold-smoked for four hours. "Any more and it becomes an ashtray," he warns. Note, this isn't the smooshy pink paste or the neon orange plasticine that typically emerges from cryovac. Rather, it's gorgeous whole sides of salmon with a translucent, ruddy umber hue — delicate curtains of sweet, luscious oil bound at the molecular level by a whisper of protein, sliced so thin you can read the menu through it. So why is this so much better than everything else in town?
"I don't know," Phillips says. "It isn't like Acme [Smoked Fish Corp.] doesn't know how to smoke a fish. Maybe because it's fresh?"
He isn't playing coy. The man genuinely isn't sure. But he knows how this stuff is supposed to taste, and when he can't find what he wants from a packaged product or a local source — not for lack of trying — Phillips resolves to do it in-house. That task falls to Little Pickle's chef, Kristina Sciarra, who Phillips plucked from the Wrigley Mansion. Pair his instincts and direction with her fine dining acumen, and the result is the magic that makes Little Pickle tick.
When you get under its playful skin, this plucky little joint is emblematic of a new wave of contemporary Jewish delis that is — belatedly, natch — just now hitting Phoenix. In the face of declining returns, restaurateurs are fighting to preserve a dying culinary tradition that finds itself increasingly non-viable. For some, this means a race to the bottom, targeting an audience that can't tell the difference between what's good and what's cheap. Others refuse to make the numbers work by dumbing things down and have to get creative instead.
Phillips finds himself in the latter camp, less out of a sense of duty and more because he's doing it for himself. "It wasn't a calculation. It was just, I can't get my bagels. I can't get my salmon. I'm sitting here drooling over Katz's Instagram, I'm spending $300 on Goldbelly for them to overnight me a pastrami. It's stupid. And yet, there I was doing all that, for love of the food."
The intersection of quality and viability is a tricky needle to thread anywhere. Doubly so in Arizona. Demand for the esoterica simply isn't there, the cheap cuts of yesteryear command steep prices these days, and getting Phoenicians to pay what it actually costs to produce excellent deli fare is a heavy lift.
Phillips, himself a member of the Tribe and a child of New York who came up frequenting the titans of the genre, has mulled on this problem for years. The answer, he argues, is to do less, and do it better. He's too polite to say it, but I will. Little Pickle is the anti-Chompies — meticulous, uncompromising, and devoid of menu sprawl.
And his menu mostly delivers. Whitefish salad might not have the sex appeal of dripping hot pastrami or satiny smooth salmon, but it conveys a relatable sack lunch charm. Served simply on rye with a leaf of romaine and a sliver of tomato, it wants for nothing (except maybe a better tomato) and its smoky allure sneaks up on you. Egg salad is similarly workmanlike, and no less noble for it. Thick and chunky and lightly seasoned, it has the temerity to taste primarily of eggs.
Latkes are outstanding. This isn't textureless potato paste smashed into a griddle. Made with substantial shredded potatoes courtesy of Frites Street, these thick, robust three-inchers feature a golden crisp crust ringed by a shattering lattice, while inside lurks a core of tender potato, redolent of onions and schmaltz.
Good pastrami wants to be alone, but I'd be a liar if I didn't cop to dressing it up with Swiss, kraut, and Russian every now and again. In a nod to local tastes, Phillips opted for Thousand Island on his Reuben (yes, there is a difference), and I find myself jonesing for horseradish. But the sandwich is otherwise flawless, with a startlingly robust crunch.
My cohort's reactions were mixed, but consider me a fan of the matzo ball soup. It's clean and gelatin-rich, leaning more towards stock than broth, with a deep, rounded flavor punctuated by bits of fresh vegetables and anchored by its tender, lightly herbed centerpiece. Chicken soup is tough because the bowl you grew up with is the only bowl in the world that will ever be correct. Speaking objectively, this is good matzo ball soup. Whether it's the right matzo ball soup for you is between you and your bubbe.
Little Pickle slings a mean breakfast as well. Egg and cheese sandwiches do their bagels and challah justice, particularly when juiced with a lox or pastrami add-on. It's not where you'd expect to find it, but the French toast here is a showstopper — thick slabs of challah smothered in syrup with fresh berry compote. The shell is griddled and golden with crisp cornflakes worked into its eggy batter, and it yields to a tender, steaming core that almost tastes like custard.
Of course, there are a few misses. Or, more accurately, non-hits. The hot dog is a hot dog, plain deli turkey on sandwich bread feels kind of superfluous, and the brisket sandwich adds thick gravy to the house pastrami, which doesn't need a damn thing beyond a dab of mustard. And let's just say that the salads will do the job for the kind of people who stand in the presence of divine pastrami and smoked salmon and stubbornly insist on having a salad anyway. Do not argue with them. Do not pity them. These people get what they deserve.
There is, however, one very prominent dud, and I have a hunch that the early returns on Little Pickle are based largely on whether the guests in question are corned beef people or pastrami people.
If anyone tells you that the corned beef is weak and that new guy at New Times is an idiot, you'll know they didn't bother to actually read to the end, because I'm telling you now: The corned beef is weak. Heck, Phillips will tell you so himself, if you ask. Unless he's fixed it by then, which is a strong possibility. He's still playing, still experimenting, still messing with things as he lays the groundwork for Little Pickle version 2.0.
"I'll make it better or I'll get rid of it," he pledges. I'm betting on the former, but I trust he'll do the latter if it comes to that. Still, maybe stick with the pastrami for a little while.
After all, there's nothing this town loves more than a giant pile of meat, and it's the pastrami that will inspire Phoenicians to face their greatest fear: a ticketed parking lot. There's plenty of space and the restaurant validates. You can do this, people. I believe in you.
Little Pickle's pastrami won't seize the title from heavyweights like New York's Katz's, and Phillips knows it, but this pink-hued pugilist can go the distance. I figure it's a matter of time before there's an adoring crowd, and you bet I'm doing my damnedest to manifest one for entirely selfish reasons.
Food this good feels like a slam dunk, but I can't shake the feeling that we've killed better restaurants than this, and there's a reason Little Pickle's fate is still in limbo. The average diner assumes a place like this — stripped to the essentials with no table service and a skeleton crew — is raking it in with every $15 pastrami sandwich. But here's the dirty little secret: In its current form, Little Pickle can't stand on its own. The Katz's of the world may survive on volume, but Little Pickle just isn't that big.
So, from a business standpoint, the diminutive dining room is effectively a marketing front for a catering service. Stopping by for lunch is all fine and good, but Phillips and May aren't hoping you'll preorder bagels and lox for the big meeting. They're counting on it.
The good news is that Phillips is committed. For him, the motivation is the act of building community around something he feels is missing — something he needs, something he thinks others need too, something he can share with them. That isn't a feeling that fades if the margins are slim. Financial survival and a little community love will probably do the job.
So we're left with the mantra I'll repeat to any Phoenician who will listen: We get the restaurants we support. Phillips believes Little Pickle will get the support it deserves. I do too. It's too good not to. But we'll see. If a game-changing pastrami sandwich doesn't guarantee restaurant longevity in Phoenix, we have only ourselves to blame.
8 a.m. - 2 p.m. Monday through Friday
2501 East Camelback Road, #40
Sandwiches $10-$18; Starters and Salads $10-$16; Breakfast Items $6-$10; Bagel with Shmear $3.