South Florida’s Oldest Deli Reopens with a Cuban Cocktail Bar
Opening in mid-June, the new Stephen's Delicatessen will feature hand-sliced pastrami, roving hot dog carts, and Bubbie’s matzo ball soup.
Growing up in Union Springs, Alabama, Henderson "Junior" Biggers had never heard the word “deli,” let alone eaten inside one. He hadn’t met a Jewish person, either. That all changed when he moved to South Florida in his early '20s.
In the 60 years since, Biggers has spent a majority of his life engulfed in clouds of smoked pastrami and corned beef. He worked his way from dishwasher to head chef, building a career inside South Florida’s oldest-operating deli, Stephen’s Delicatessen, by serving Reuben sandwiches, potato pancakes, and matzo ball soup.
“Delis are dying, especially in South Florida,” says restaurateur Matt Kuscher, who bought Stephen’s in 2017 with plans for a complete remodel.
Today, Biggers, whose grandson is Miami Heat player Udonis Haslem, is in his early 80s; and as he’s gotten older, deli culture around the country, and especially in South Florida, has waned. It’s not like it used to be, when Stephen’s first opened in 1954 in Hialeah, a town in Southwest Miami that was previously home to a garment district and a large Jewish population.
“Junior is the heart and soul of this operation,” Kuscher says. “He’s the one who’s kept this alive. 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.”
Since Kuscher’s purchase of the deli nearly two years ago, he and Biggers are finally ready to unveil a modernized Stephen’s, complete with hand-sliced meats, roving hot dog carts, and Hialeah’s first craft cocktail bar, La Cocina. Yet Kuscher, who grew up in his grandfather's deli, is also trying to preserve that old-school deli feel.
Expected to open in mid-June, Stephen’s carving corner will be the main draw of the restaurant, putting Biggers front and center as he prepares enough meat for the deli and adjacent cocktail bar.
"I make about 120 sandwiches a day," Biggers estimated in 2017. "I never would have thought this is what I would be doing at my age.”
The menu isn’t anything like Kuscher's grandfather’s deli used to be, featuring an eclectic range of bagel and lox platters, Bubbie’s matzo ball soup, and hot corned beef sandwiches, to frita burgers, chicken and waffles, and key lime pie. The hot dog cart will roll around the restaurant, stocked with toppings like sauerkraut, relish, and mustard.
As for La Cocina, a discrete door near the restroom at Stephen’s will offer entrance into the speakeasy-style bar.
For the cocktail menu, Kuscher tapped 10 local mixologists, including Beaker & Gray’s Ben Potts and SBE’s Gui Jaroschy, to each create a unique drink. A sneak peek revealed the rum-based Ya Tu Sabe, and the scotch-based Pata Sucia with coconut water and lime. There will be a limited food menu, bringing together items from Stephen’s (matzo ball soup, lox, and “Jewban” Cuban sandwiches) with one-offs like buffalo chicken scraps and black bean dip with yucca chips.
“The fact that we’re opening Hialeah’s first cocktail bar is equally as exciting as bringing back the oldest Jewish deli in Florida,” Kuscher says. “I’m either the smartest or dumbest guy in the room.”
As Kuscher readies to open Stephen’s, he’s busy running a satellite outpost inside Time Out Market, which opened its first U.S. location in Miami this past May. So far, it’s been a knockout success, he says, where he fills hundreds of orders for Reuben sandwiches and matzo ball soup each week.
“Stephen’s has been in our backyard for years,” Kuscher says. “If someone doesn’t bring it to the forefront in a major way, we will lose it. I’m not going to let that happen.”
“I have so many memories around delis,” he continues. “I don’t want a world where they don’t exist in the same way, so if that means adding a bar and making it modern, that’s what we’ll do.”
Stephen’s Delicatessen. 1000 E 16th St, Hialeah.