Phyl’s deli, which opened last April in the Old Market, is tiny. Its menu is small, too – fewer than a dozen sandwiches, one soup, bagels and lox and a couple of homestyle Jewish specialties.
But what’s not small at all are the enormous piles of meat that co-owner and chef Craig Hoffman piles carefully between slices of locally homemade bread, each one topped with a specific, no-substitutions combination of thoughtfully selected cheeses and condiments.
Trust me when I say I don’t think you should substitute anything here, anyway. Hoffman knows what he’s doing at this New York-style Jewish deli. No need to mess with this kind of expert edit, pared down and just right.
A lot of things stuck me as I ate through every sandwich on Phyl’s menu over the past couple of weeks. For example: A thick spread of European butter on the Paris ham sandwich. The crisp-crunchy edges of Hoffman’s deeply flavorful, house made pastrami.
The beauty of a stack of roasted balsamic-tinged vegetables topped with tomato confit. The rosy hue of perfectly medium rare roast beef folded over and over inside the aptly named “Beast” sandwich.
Am I going on? Yes, kind of. But when there isn’t a single misstep, I get inspired.
Let’s take a closer look at that Pastrami, which Hoffman makes in house and is a week-long process for each batch. He secures each brisket, then brines, trims and rubs it with his signature rub before smoking each one. He then slices it thick and piles it on his signature light rye bread — made for the deli by the Lithuanian Bakery in Omaha — and topping it with a thick slice of Swiss, a house-made Oatmeal stout grainy mustard, caramelized onion and then grills the whole thing, resulting in a warm, melty, spicy, crispy masterpiece.
Hoffman said periodically the deli will run out of pastrami (it’s quite popular) and though he feels bad telling people the shop is out, he also said it’s not all bad.
“It keeps generating interest, and it keeps customers coming back,” he said. “It is the thing we hang our hat on.”
As soon as Hoffman saw the Old Market spot where Phyl’s is located, formerly Ahmad’s, he knew it was the spot.
“It just screamed ‘New York hole-in-the-wall’,” he said. “The kinds of places I had fallen in love with there.”
He also knew right away that it was meant to be a deli.
“There were no real delis in Omaha,” he said. “Or a severe shortage of delis.”
Hoffman grew up in Omaha, graduated, moved to New York, among other places, then moved back, eventually attending culinary school at the Metropolitan Community College Institute for the Culinary Arts. That launched his career — and made him friends like Block 16’s Paul and Jessica Urban, this week nominated for their first James Beard Semifinalist award, and Au Courant’s Ben Maides, another past Beard nominee.
“I don’t think Phyl’s happens without a Block 16 or an Au Courant,” he said. “All those are people I went to school with and worked with and convinced me that this is doable. I was lucky to be in such great company.”
Hoffman intentionally kept the menu at Phyl’s (which is named after his grandmother, Phyllis) small. It’s smart.
I liked every single one of his sandwiches, but the Jambon Beurre is especially good. Sliced Paris ham — one of my favorites — is topped with a slice of Fontina and spicy arugula, then a Lithuanian bakery roll gets a thick spread of European butter and Hoffman puts it all together. Butter is an ingredient I don’t often see on sandwiches; at Phyl’s, it shines. It appears again on the decadent Little Italy, where Hoffman uses that same locally baked roll and that same spread of butter, but this time includes hot capicola, soppressata and fontina, making it a salami lover’s dream.
There’s surprising care put into two of what I think are usually the most basic of sandwiches. A spread of just-sweet, cinnamony apple butter and a thick piece of white cheddar elevate the turkey beyond the everyday. And The Garden is much more than an afterthought of a vegetarian selection. Hoffman roasts yellow and green squash, red onion and yellow pepper, douses them in Balsamic and tops it all with Fontina and a garlicky tomato confit. It left me delighted.
The medium rare roast beef on “The Beast,” which truly is a monster of a sandwich, is absolutely enough to serve two (or give one person lunch the next day.)
Punchy horseradish aioli livens things up; it’s on top of that pile of beef plus white cheddar, smoky tomato confit and arugula. The juices from the confit soak nicely into the greens, making it sort of like a tiny salad in the center of a sandwich.
I focused my visits on Phyl’s sandwiches, but there are also several Jewish specialities, which Hoffman makes using family recipes, including a noodle kugel, which is a baked casserole made with noodles and potatoes; and knish, a savory pastry snack; and matzo ball soup (the only one I got to try, it’s fabulous, warm and comforting.)
He’s also serving bagels with lox and bagel sandwiches, an area of the menu he’s slowly growing. He said he anticipates the Jewish specialties will rotate seasonally. He’s also house making briny, tangy pickle spears using his own secret recipe. You’ll get one with your sandwich; don’t skip it.
Phyl’s only has a few seats, and a lot of its business is takeout. Service is brisk and friendly, and don’t be surprised if a staff member or another customer strikes up a conversation. It’s that kind of place. In the warmer months, outdoor seating will most certainly welcome a patio lunch crowd.
Hoffman is right that Omaha has, for too long, had a severe lack of legit, Jewish New York-style delis.
I can confidently confirm one thing: Those days are over.
1008 Howard St., in the Old Market
Hours: Monday through Thursday 11am to 3 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Closed Sunday.