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Henderson “Junior” Biggers has been hand-carving homemade corned beef since he arrived in Miami from Alabama in 1959. That’s tens of thousands of fresh sandwiches over the decades.
He did it all at Stephen’s Deli, one of the few places that remain from the days when Mee-am-ee was pronounced Mi-am-uh.
Miami Beach, then called America’s Riviera, was home to scores of New York-style Jewish delis that sprang up to serve the snowbirds from New York City. They were the subject of many vintage postcards, but the Wolfie’s and Rascal Houses disappeared as spa cuisine and thong bikinis became more popular than bubbe’s latkes and one-piece bathing suits.
But far from the beaches, Stephen’s has survived. It opened in Hialeah in 1954 to cater to the Jewish population that worked in Hialeah’s then thriving garment industry, serving up their comfort food long before Hialeah was La Cuidad Que Progresa.
“The early years, the people, I mean, the parking lot was full of people,” Biggers recalls. “From 11 o’clock to 2 o’clock, people were standing at the door to get seats, that’s how busy it was.”
Comings and goings
As the garment industry moved on to China and other overseas manufacturing hubs, so did the original Stephen’s clientele. But the railroad tracks still cut through through, and the shipping and cargo jobs that come with that, so working class diners remained a staple — as does a love for Bigger’s corned beef.
“Then the population in the area changed, the garment industry moved out. A lot of that went to China. Many of my regulars work at distribution companies,” according to Jack Frisch, the current owner.
Now the clientele reflects the waves of immigration to Hialeah: the influx of Cuban exiles in the 1960s that was followed by waves of immigrants from Central and South America.
As Biggers puts it: “After Jewish, Hialeah more or less went to Spanish. A lot of places owned by Spanish now.”
Keeping it simple
In 2011, longtime owners Sheldon and Phyllis Nadelman, the Yankees who first brought New York flavor to Hialeah, sold Stephen’s to Jack Frisch, a man from New Jersey.
Jack Frisch, a former headhunter, left corporate life and settled in South Florida to study culinary arts at Johnson and Wales University. He worked at The Viceroy and Seasons 52 before taking over Stephen’s.
Frisch has kept this quintessentially New York restaurant intact, its cuisine pretty much unchanged despite Hialeah’s increasingly Latino character. No fusion food here. The numbers have dipped a bit, but they still get steady business.
Jorge Morales, a Nicaraguan immigrant who has been a waiter at Stephen’s since 1995, said more and more Latinos are noshing at the deli.
“We’re really one of a kind in the area,” he notes. “We’ve got our American regulars, but Latinos come to try something new and keep coming back when they want variety. They tired of the same old Latin food they eat every day, so this is where they come for something different.”
Not all his customers are local.
“It’s like a fragment of New York,” he says. “Regulars bring world travelers here. People close business deals here. I even saw an Arab guy once. It’s a nucleus for the world right here in Miami.”
The handmade touch
The secret to Stephen’s success despite the disappearance of its main eaters is stick-to-your-ribs food like the corned beef sandwich — and that’s all in the hands of Biggers.
“The corned beef, the idea is to not overcook it. You just have to cook it to right, which means you can’t cook it too fast, you cook it just simple,” he explains. “And when it comes out, you just slice it thin. In fact, here we’re traditional, hand-carved. Most delis now use a machine and we’re still doing it by hand.”
Although Stephen’s classic deli nosh is pretty old school — potato latkes, matzah ball soup, beef brisket — Frisch is a flexible restaurateur. Today, daily specials include more health-conscious options such as salads and wraps.
He’s also looking forward to the changes he’s seeing around him in Hialeah — even if it means some change.
“Fresh energy is coming in from the grassroots artistic community over at the new Leah Arts District around the corner,” he says. “And I’m really excited about working with our neighbor Zachary of Unbranded Brewing Company to transform the neighborhood into a dining and drinking destination.”