Food

Folks are flocking to Hialeah for the new Stephen’s Deli. Here’s why it’s worth the drive

Photos: Stephen’s Delicatessen in Hialeah

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.
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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.

They came to Hialeah to see about a deli.

They came from Miami, Miami Shores and the Beach. They came from Pembroke Pines.

They came for the corned beef and pastrami they heard that Henderson “Junior” Biggers has been hand-carving to order into quarter-inch-thick slices for the better part of 60 years. They came for the matzo ball soup.

But, really, the first customers who have come to Stephen’s Delicatessen in the first few weeks came to see if it measures up to their memories.

Stephen’s deli, which has been in east Hialeah since 1954 when it was at the center of the long-forgotten Jewish-run garment district, was recently purchased by owner No. 8, Matt Kuscher, who spent the last 18 months renovating it. It is the last of the original Miami-area delis.

He reopened the restaurant June 19, inspired by the Jewish deli his grandparents owned in Plantation. He relied on the institutional knowledge of Biggers, who has worked the knife and the grill here for 62 years. He brought along many of the original recipes, tweaked by Kuscher’s Hialeah-born chef, Leo Osorio, and applied to a higher-quality beef. (The city of Hialeah named July 1 Henderson “Junior” Biggers Day in a proclamation.)

The result? Strong opinions, said Kuscher, working the front of the house during my recent visit, particularly from transplants who began their sentences with, “Well, I grew up in New York, and...”

Well, I grew up in South Florida, where my late mother made dresses for the garment makers in these very warehouse in the 1960s. The Jewish textile owners fed my family in a different way.

Whether Stephen’s measures up to a food memory will be up to individual diners, who will judge its matzo ball soup against their bubbies’ and the corned beef to delis that have long since disappeared from Manhattan save for Katz’s.

Let them make new memories, Kuscher told me, defending the newest of his restaurants, which includes Lokal and the next-door Vicky’s House milkshake bar, its seafood and craft cider specific Coconut Grove neighbor The Spillover, and the burger and beer haunt Kush in Wynwood.

That will depend on how successfully he makes his favorites theirs. There’s room enough to praise (and kvetch a little).

Start with: Bubbie’s Matzho Ball soup

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Carlos Frías cfrias@miamiherald.com

Never underestimate the healing powers of a good chicken soup, particularly when a matzo ball helps deliver the “Jewish penicillin,” as the menu claims. In Stephen’s version, the egg noodles hold firm and the matzo ball is tender enough to cut through with a spoon like custard. Neatly diced carrots and celery — and a matzo just dusted with dill — help round out a rich flavor that never comes close to salty. $7 ($13 for a double order to go)

This is why you came: the Reuben

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Carlos Frías cfrias@miamiherald.com

Corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and Swiss on buttery, grilled rye bread: All the elements have to come together just right to make a stellar Reuben sandwich. Stephen’s does. The corned beef is marbled throughout and cooked tender to where the meat pulls apart with each bite. The vinegary sauerkraut, tangy dressing and pungent Swiss balance the flavor in seeded rye bread that is buttery-crispy without tearing apart your gums. $15

Junior’s Pastrami

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Carlos Frías cfrias@miamiherald.com

There’s nowhere for a pastrami sandwich to hide. It’s simply seasoned hunks of brined and smoked brisket, a schmear of deli mustard and untoasted white seeded rye bread. The meat has to shine. Here the pastrami is lean, carved to order by Biggers behind the counter, and it’s generously layered on chewy seeded rye bread that stands up to the hunks of beef. The smoky, peppery flavor permeates through and through Note: the smaller sandwich is more than enough for a hearty lunch. $13 (6 ounces of meat); $19 (10 ounces) matches Katz’s prices.

Two dogs here!

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Carlos Frías cfrias@miamiherald.com

It’s hard to get excited about a hot dog, that’s true. But when you see that the Sabrett hot dog cart at the edge of the counter gets trotted out for over-the-top tableside service, you’re compelled to order it. Sadly, although we saw it rolled over to at least one other table, our order was taken and the dogs delivered already topped. The flavor, if not the theatrics, of the all-beef dogs were there, however. The dogs had a hearty snap and the sauerkraut with a squirt of deli mustard helped ease the disappointment.

$11 for 2 dogs with chips and a pickle.

A side of: latkes

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Latkes, like Latin tostones, vary in their shape, thickness and texture from house to house as the best comfort food dishes do. However, they can be objectively good without being just like mom’s. Kuscher’s version of this shaved potato fritter are taller and more puck-like than the hash browns some places pass off for latkes. That makes it easier for the outside of these to remain crispy and the inside light, almost falling apart, begging for sour cream and apple sauce (served on the side) to bond them in flavor texture.

Finish sweet: Strawberry cheesecake

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Carlos Frías cfrias@miamiherald.com

A New York egg cream and a Key lime pie that calls itself the best in Miami eyed us from the bottom of the menu. But for a restaurant that proudly calls itself a New York-style deli, we had to go for the New York style cheesecake. Classic in every way, the cheesecake itself was dense but creamy with the slightest toasted edge. The strawberry sauce, though muted in color, was sweet and tart. If anything, the whipped cream was overbeaten and dense. Better to go out on a final bite of cheesecake, strawberry and a firm and flavorful graham cracker crust. $7

Miami Herald critics dine unannounced and at the newspaper’s expense. For the latest restaurant inspection reports, visit dine.miami.com.

Editor’s note: Miami Herald dining reviews no longer include star ratings. We believe a restaurant should be judged on its merits and the nuance of the dining experience, not simply on a grade. — Carlos Frías, Miami Herald food editor

Stephen’s Delicatessen

Address: 1000 E. 16th St., Hialeah

Info: 305-887-8863; StephensDeli.com

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily

Price range: Soups and starters $5-$13; sandwiches $10-$20

FYI: Free fenced-in parking across the street and out front; accessible first-floor entrance and restrooms; beer, wine and an upcoming next-door bar makes certain hard-liquor drinks available.

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