A year and a half after it closed for renovations, Stephen's Deli (1000 E. 16th St., Hialeah; 305-887-8863; kushhospitality.com) has reopened in the exact same location with the exact same vibe.
The delicatessen does feature one major change: Henderson "Junior" Biggers, the chef who's worked at Stephen's for more than 60 years, has been given a place of honor at the front of the house. Guests can now marvel as he carves pastrami, turkey, and corned beef and piles it high onto fresh, chewy rye bread.
Matthew Kuscher (Lokal, Kush, the Spillover) bought the restaurant in November 2017 to save the last of Miami's true Jewish delis. "Here was this awesome deli that was around for 60 years, and it was about to die," the restaurateur says. "I felt it was my obligation to preserve it."
When Stephen's was founded in 1954, Hialeah was predominantly a Jewish neighborhood surrounded by Miami's garment center. During its heyday, Stephen's was one of four delis on the same block in Hialeah, and Biggers was slicing meat at an eatery that did a robust lunch service. "One by one, they all died. Stephen's is the last one standing, and Junior made Stephen's what it is," Kuscher says. "Without Junior, I wouldn't be as sentimental as I was and am."
After purchasing the restaurant, Kuscher thought it would be an easy turnaround. He soon learned that the six-decades-old building needed a complete overhaul. Besides heading the initial project of revamping the kitchen and refreshing the dining room, he found himself having to oversee a snout-to-tail renovation, including repaving the parking lot and bringing the electric up to code.
Kuscher says the finished product was worth it, although most customers might not even notice all the work that went into it. "It took two years to make it look exactly the same as it did before," he says. The restaurant has retained its old-school deli-meets-diner vibe, but with some updates.
At the upgraded 3,000-square-foot eatery, Kuscher pays homage to his childhood memories and Jewish roots through family photos on the walls and a menu designed to duplicate his grandfather's deli in Plantation, which burned down years ago. Stephen's retains its original chairs, tables, and signage framing the entrance. And, of course, guests can now watch Biggers slice deli meat at Junior's Station, a prominent space front and center. "That's the show," Kuscher says.
Those meats are presented between slices of toothsome, Jewish rye. A pastrami and corned beef combo sandwich ($14 for 6 oz. of meat, $20 for 10 oz. of meat) is slathered with spicy deli mustard and served with coleslaw and a whole sour pickle. The pastrami is boiled for three and a half hours, the corned beef for five hours. To prepare enough meat daily, about ten loins of pastrami alone, Kuscher's kitchen team starts working the night before.
Before your sandwich, order a bowl of the matzoh ball soup ($6). The matzoh balls, also prepared by Biggers, are fluffier than your bubbie's, and the broth is filled with carrots, celery, and egg noodles.
And, since this is Hialeah, a frita is on the menu ($18), as are other burgers taken from the restaurateur's lineup at his burger joints Kush and Lokal.
Wash down your sandwich with a classic New York egg cream ($5) — a tall glass filled with milk and chocolate syrup and topped with soda water. Brooklyn transplants will find the pretzel rod that traditionally accompanies an egg cream is missing — something Kuscher plans to rectify. Although the restaurant won't serve cocktails at this time, Stephen's offers an option to make your egg cream boozy (and will also serve a proper Irish coffee for dessert).
Later this summer, Kuscher will open La Cocina, a 40-seat bar that's entered through a corridor past the bathrooms. The bar is part of the kitchen's original footprint, which was reduced to add the lounge area.
The space is decorated in what can best be described as "Hialeah squared." Lotto tickets and Caja China labels serve as wallpaper, and never have there been as many pieces of Hialeah memorabilia gathered in one place. Did anyone ever know of (or actually own) a genuine Hialeah Racetrack board game, for instance? Kuscher says the spot will offer a selection of well-made cocktails created by some of the area's brightest bartenders.
In Stephen's and La Cocina, Kuscher says he has grown attached to the neighborhood. "In this process, I love that I've discovered Hialeah, and I really think both the city's and South Florida residents will be proud of the authenticity we made of the space here," Kuscher says.
And Biggers, who has been part of Stephen's since it first opened, will finally get the kudos he deserves, Kuscher says. The City of Hialeah plans to honor the 83-year-old with a proclamation.
"Junior is the heart and soul of this operation," Kuscher says. "He's the one who's kept this alive and has been with the operation since 1957, when he was only 20 years old. If it wasn't for him hand-slicing meat for more than 60 years, all of this would probably be long gone. He's responsible for keeping up one of the most historic places in Miami."
Stephen's Deli. 1000 E. 16th St., Hialeah; 305-887-8863; kushhospitality.com. Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.