East Hialeah deli could lead way to revitalization

A few weeks ago, during one of our customary nostalgic confabs, my childhood friend, Mike from North Broward, revealed a morsel of his family history that piqued my interest.

Mike told me about a Jewish deli in East Hialeah that has been around since the time when his grandfather owned a bedding factory in the city’s grungy industrial section. “It’s called Stephen’s, and I remember going there with my parents when I was a kid,” he said. “I drove by there the other day, and it’s still around, easy-listening music, tasty matzo ball soup, Brady Bunch-like, wood-paneling décor and all.”

Indeed, my friend was right, Stephen’s is still standing and serving delicious pastrami. But more than a remnant of Hialeah’s past, it represents a symbol of the city’s transformation and its evolution into what could be a new era for the “City of Progress.”

As I drove to Stephen’s, I recalled the days when the garment industry boomed in Hialeah’s southeast corridor. Many Cuban mothers and grandmothers worked in the factories that lined the bustling streets. My grandmother, like many others, labored in a drab, nondescript warehouse where countless reams of fabric were measured and cut before being sent off to Latin America for final assembly.

I have vivid recollections of my visits to Abuela’s factory: the sound of radio novelas echoing over the routine hum of the machinery, my grandmother’s personalized work station — tiny in size but chock-full of pictures of all her grandkids and the medianoche sandwiches my dad would buy me from one of the many loncheros (Cuban lunch trucks) along the streets.

Stephen’s punctuates the corner of 10th Avenue and 16th Street in the heart of what was once Miami’s manufacturing epicenter, but it’s now an industrial ghost town. The restaurant is owned by Jack Frisch, who came to Florida from New Jersey for an early retirement. Upon his arrival, he realized that he was too young for backgammon and daytime TV, so he attained a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University and took a shot on a sleepy restaurant that time had seemingly forgotten.

“I think it was the perfect situation. I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I bought the place on pure gut instinct. It had character and history,” Frisch said. Today Stephen’s proudly serves the best Jewish fare south of the Broward County line. The place is clean, the staff is friendly and the food is otherworldly, especially the deli meats. They’re hand-carved daily by chef Junior Biggers, who has worked at Stephen’s since Sheldon and Phyllis Nadelman opened for business in 1954 (which is also well before Biggers’ grandson, Miami Heat star Udonis Haslem, was born).

“That area is reflective of the post-Second World War economic boom,” historian Paul George told me. “Land was cheap, and many entrepreneurs settled in the area and established a respectable garment industry.”

After my conversation with George, I posted a picture boasting of the pastrami on rye I had at Stephen’s that day. That’s when a Hialeah homegirl, community activist Jenny Lee Molina, got in touch.

“You have to reach out to Hialeah Councilman Paul Hernandez,” she emphatically texted. “We are developing a cool plan for that area.”

Cool indeed. I reached out to Hernandez, who at 27 is the youngest member of the Hialeah Council, and was encouraged by his outlook and the plan he and Molina crafted for the city’s old factoria district.

“When I looked at this southeast corridor of Hialeah, I was reminded of Wynwood before Basel and the galleries,” Hernandez said.

“Jenny Lee and I spoke a couple of years ago and we set out to create an arts district in Hialeah. We are re-purposing the old garment district. What better place? The rent is cheap.”

And the tuna salad at Stephen’s is divine.