When chef Melissa Sosa and baker Zak Stern thought about a fish salad sandwich for Stern's kosher deli, which opened with a limited menu this past Wednesday, they ran into a problem.
They needed a species that was fleshy, oily, and sturdy enough to stand up to the smoker. But here in Florida, none of the fish used in the Eastern European cooking that cemented the foundation of New York City's herd of kosher delicatessens was available. So Sosa, who's been shuttling between Miami and New York to burrow into the ins-and-outs of deli operations alongside Harry & Ida's co-owner Will Horowitz, had to find a replacement.
"The only way we can properly translate a deli to South Florida is by looking at our waters and our agriculture across the board and seeing what we have that's similar to what was originally used," Sosa says while frying a tear-inducing heap of onions.
The blue runner was the answer. Cousin of the yellow jack, it has long been seen as a cheap, throwaway baitfish. Those are the same qualities of the fish that newly arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe looked for when they began opening appetizing joints across New York in the early 20th Century.
The result is a savory, salty-as-hell fish salad in a sandwich ($13) using slices of Stern's bread and accented with diced white onions, a lime-green fold of lettuce, and a few piney frills of fresh dill.
At the moment, the deli's all-day menu is only eight items long while the kitchen awaits its smoker and finishes construction. Stern's bright, busy bakery has been warmed up a bit with a cherrywood stain on the counter and darker tables adorned with glass vases. Things are different now, quieter, and Stern can be found waiting on and bussing tables. The avocado toasts that lured lines that stretched out the door and down the block have been retired. Initially, he and Sosa planned to open with an extensive menu that included no less than four kinds of casseroles called kugel and a panoply of brined, smoked, and cured meats and fishes.
Yet the decision was made to instead build out the menu piece by piece. At the moment, each meal begins with a pickle plate littered with crisp brined cabbage, a plank of cucumber, and a toothsome wedge of green tomato that you'll want to dice and scatter over every meal you eat henceforth. There are two iterations of corned beef: one in a breakfast sandwich ($14) that also contains a vegetable omelet flecked with onion and red pepper; you may instead request a fried egg. Fat ribboned slices of the cherry-hued beef are also the centerpiece of a simple sandwich ($16) smeared with the deli's house-made, nose-tingling mustard.
In the months ahead, the menu will be expanded as techniques and sources are tested and proven. Sosa and Stern are working with Jorge Figueroa's Trigger Seafood to procure Florida grass carp to be ground into gefilte fish. "It literally tastes like grass, but after you season it, brine it, and cook it, it turns into this beautiful product," Sosa says. And that's the main focus: using off-cuts of meat, so-called trash fish, and sensible produce. "All of this stuff nobody has ever wanted to buy or eat, we're going to use," she adds.
Stern notes that much of it will eventually be available in a glass-enclosed deli display where patrons can find fish salads, smoked meats, and chopped liver by the pound. Yet even more in demand might be jobs in Stern's fledgling bakery. In small print, the menu notes a 15 percent charge will be added to each check to support a living wage for employees. "We guarantee a minimum of $15 an hour," Stern says, "and some people are getting more."
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Restaurant workers across the nation have been demanding a pay increase to $15, from the paltry minimum wages that are $7.25 federally and just more than $8 in Florida. "On $8.05 in Florida, it's impossible to live," Stern says.
All of these moves might help make Stern and Sosa's aspirations to become a place with the heft of El Atlacatl, La Camaronera, or Joe's Stone Crab a reality. "We want to be an institution that's here for the community," Sosa says. "We want to be here in 50 years."