Stephen’s Delicatessen watched all the others disappear.
Goodbye, Wolfie’s. Goodbye, Rascal House, Pumpernik’s and Corky’s. Goodbye to all the other smaller Jewish delis in South Florida.
Quietly, improbably, Stephen’s deli managed to stay in business since 1954 in the unlikeliest of places — Hialeah.
It lasted through seven owners (one owned it twice) over the last 65 years, as it went from being on the corner of the once-booming Jewish-owned garment district to the forgotten warehouses for cabinet makers, tile shops and glass and mirror cutters where Hialeah shops for its illegal efficiencies.
Everyone seemed to forget about Stephen’s — until now.
Stephen’s Delicatessen is ready to make a comeback June 19 with owner number eight — Matt Kuscher, the innovative chef-owner of Lokal, Kush, The Spillover and Vicky’s House milkshake bar, who knows how to make his restaurants a cool-kid destination. (Usually, a secret bar is part of the equation as it is with Stephen’s.)
And Kuscher has a secret weapon: Henderson Biggers Jr. The longtime manager, who everyone calls Junior, started as a dishwasher there 62 years ago and learned to hard-carve the homemade pastrami and corned beef as Stephen’s scenery changed.
“Junior never left. Even through clientele changes, demographic changes, he was the connection,” Kuscher said.
Kuscher bought the restaurant at 1000 E. 16th St. in November of 2017 with the painstaking goal of making a new-and-improved Stephen’s look like it hadn’t been touched at all.
New, textured wallpaper evokes the restaurant’s original wood paneling. He kept the original “Welcome to Stephen’s” stained-glass, the L-shaped bar and vinyl-topped stools, the chairs imported from Poland, the cracked tile floors, the mint-green Formica tables that the previous owner, Shelly Nadelman, let his wife pick out.
The bar mitzvah oil painting of Kuscher’s father and a slew of family photos, arranged just as they were at his mother’s house in Maryland, decorate one wall. And next to it, a framed menu from his grandparents’ deli, the Plantation Nook in Broward, where he spent summers with Joe and Dorothy Kuscher. Stephen’s kitschy beige and brown menu is a replica of the Nook’s.
“I kept the bullet holes in the window,” Kuscher said. “I wanted it to feel you’ve been coming here for 30 years.”
The one change: Biggers is out front.
Biggers moved to Miami to live with his brother after serving in the Air Force in Roswell, New Mexico and Okinawa, Japan, and took the only job he could find in Florida in 1957: dishwasher.
“Blacks could only get certain jobs,” Biggers, 83, recalled one day last week.
But over the years Biggers quickly moved up the ranks at Stephen’s, manning the grill and learning the art of carefully slicing pastrami and corned beef to make the most of the meat, cured and smoked through an intensive process. And, to get the thinness and texture just right for a piled-high sandwich.
“When you’re serving something where the meat is the star, all those little details are important,” Kuscher said.
Sandwiches are the highlight. Junior’s Pastrami or corned beef start at $13 for six ounces of sliced meat. The Reubens and Rachels are $15 and feature housemade sauerkraut, cole slaw and Russian dressing. They share a large deli menu with Kuscher’s Bubbie’s Matzoh Ball soup ($7), Sabra hot dogs wheeled to your table in a pushcart, latkes, egg cream sodas and all-day breakfast.
Several of these dishes, including a hit pastrami on rye, are already available at the Timeout Market on South Beach, where Stephen’s has a kiosk.
At Stephen’s the carving station is out front where customers can see Biggers beneath a mural-sized, pink-and-teal neon sign that reads, “Hand-slicing pastrami since 1945.” A poster of Biggers with a brief bio hangs prominently on one wall as a tribute. The city of Hialeah intends to give him a proclamation, Kuscher said.
“Lots of people, when you get up in age, they don’t want to fool with you,” Biggers said. “Over here, they appreciated me and the work I’d done.”
Sitting at a table with Kuscher and Biggers, Scott Nadelman, whose family owned the deli for 41 years, stopped in to see the progress.
“Everyone’s replaceable — except him,” Nadelman said, nodding at Biggers.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Kuscher restaurant if it didn’t have his attention to detail — and a hidden bar of some kind.
At his burger and craft beer restaurant Lokal in Coconut Grove, Kuscher used a phone booth made to look like it was from the movie “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” as a pass through to his hidden milkshake bar Vicky’s.
The beer-and-wine waiting room for his Wynwood restaurant Kush resembles a botanica. And in bathrooms at The Spillover are homages to Chespirito and the many Spanish-television characters of actor Roberto Gomez Bolaños.
At Stephen’s, the woman’s bathroom is an ode to South Florida soothsayer Walter Mercado, the men’s room dedicated to a local eccentric who calls himself the Hialeah Spiderman.
And down a hallway where black light illuminates a mural-sized map of Hialeah, is a hidden door to a craft cocktail bar, La Cocina Cocteleria. It’s an ode to Hialeah, with walls lined with Caja China boxes, a luminescent Ñooo Que Barato sign and the Spanish People’s Court style show, “Caso Cerrado” playing on a loop. Yes, Hialeah swag from Hialeah-born artists are for sale. (The bar will open separately in July.)
“Nobody walks around with T-shirts that say, ‘I’m from Kendall,’” Kuscher said. “People from Hialeah love to rep it.”
Aside from a full bar and a separate bites menu are a dozen cocktails, each designed by one of Miami’s best known bartenders, including Havana Club’s brand ambassador in Miami, Gio Gutierrez, Jaguar Sun owner Will Thompson and Beaker & Gray co-owner Ben Potts.
No, it’s not the same Stephen’s from 1954. Then again, neither is Hialeah.
“Of course, I’m nervous. I’m opening a Jewish deli in a Cuban neighborhood,” he said. “But if you put out something that’s authentic, that’s cool, with quality, you’ll give people a reason to come.”
1000 E. 16th St., Hialeah; 305-887-8863
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.