December 30, 2020

Where to find the best Jewish cuisine in Miami

challah bread

Challah bread

It was always this way. I born into a family that embraced change and adventure. It started with innocent moves like swapping out the flowing dining room drapes every year, then graduating to painting the whole house a different hue before we got used to the periwinkle blue, to then selling the ranch style house for a two story plus full basement Cape Cod style home. Then it was taking vacations to places that didn’t just roll off the tongue; it had to be destinations no one else necessarily heard of. My mother’s fashion sense was anything but predictable; we never quite knew which Mom was going to show up on any given day-would it be the Pucci mini-skirted hip woman or the buttoned up matron? Yes, it was safe to say, that my formative years were never static or calculable.

So when my actor-comedian father was offered the opportunity to relocate for the winter months to Miami in the early 1960’s so he could perform his act in all the fancy clubs, my parents jumped at the chance. Even though change was a way of life for our NY family, I had some questions about this southerly move that would be for much more than a few weeks of vacation. I distinctly remember my mother saying to my sister and I, “Girls, you are going to love Miami; it’s just like New York, but in the sun”.

Perhaps my sassiness and my ability to question began at this young age. With hands on my little hips, and my brown brows in deep furrow I asked, “ Yeah, but how are the bagels?”

You see, amidst the cravings for something different to do, see, or be was redolent in our family of four, the one thing that was absolutely constant was the presence of our traditional Jewish foods. Whenever my parents made new friends an invitation was sent to sample my mother’s matzo ball soup. When the place setting changed from classic Wedgewood to modern Stoneware, there was my Dad’s juicy brisket adorning the plate. Come hell or high water, we were all going to stand on that unruly, long line at the kosher bakery to get our chocolate babka no matter how many hours it took. So when we were going to be away from the familiar fattest coarse salt bagels you’ve ever seen, purchased from the same exact store we had patronized for years, I didn’t exactly get excited about trading my ice skates for a bikini. But, in the end of course I had no choice. Mom was right; Miami was all set up to accommodate the throngs of northern Jews who fled the chilly winters with not only fluffy bagels, but also with lox, potato kugel, dill pickles, pastrami and all the other foods of my upbringing accompanied by beautiful palm trees to boot.

Those were the heydays, from the 1940’s through the 1970’s when every Semite north of the Mason-Dixon line escaped the ice and snow to cram into one of the vinyl booths at Wolfie’s, Rascal House or Pumpernik’s, the famed NY-style delicatessens that made their names on the full bellies of snowbirds from Brooklyn to the Bronx. Although it finally died in 2002, Wolfie’s was the place my parents schlepped us to what seemed like every Miami Beach meal. But with good reason- my bagel devotion was fulfilled here; so much so I barely thought of my NY life as we spent living as part-timers on the beach. From the heavy New York accents of the “rude” staff egging you on to hurry up and make up your mind “honey”, to the loud chubby bubbies who thought nothing of taking up booth space for hours decked out in their colorful muumuu dresses, to the excitement when a celebrity like Jackie Gleason would honor the threshold, these delis fed my young Jewish soul so very well.

I have returned to Miami, first as an adult snowbird from DC, but in recent years as a full-fledged, year-round resident. But the delis of my childhood are long gone. Although the complete chaos and mayhem of these beloved establishments are no longer around, there are places that still do justice to the whole Jewish cuisine scene. Even if you don’t know your knish from your kishka, your tummy is in for a treat at any one of these current kosher establishments.

Zak the Baker

Although you won’t find the table-side pickle barrel of yesteryear’s Wolfie’s, Zak the Baker, has to have a spot on your kosher needs list. Here the star is the bread and believe me when I tell you, my people probably scarf down more bread carbs than most other sects, except perhaps the Italians. You come here for a perfectly eggy and slightly sweet challah that puts my great aunt Rose’s to utter shame ( and she was the best baker in the family). The bakery is located at 295NE 26th street in Wynwood and their deli is in a separate location, but on the same street at number 405. So whether you fancy just picking up a loaf of golden challah ( his sourdough breads are also spectacular and no Jew would ever turn down another loaf) or you want to sit down and enjoy a few kosher offerings in the deli, the quality here is top notch.

Mo’s Bagel and Deli

A little further afield in Aventura at 2780 NE 187th street lies the temple of my childhood memories, Mo’s Bagels and Deli. Opened in 1995 as the original long-lived delis started to close their doors, the tradition lives on here. My husband and I drive up as often as we can so I can retain a part of my heritage in true NY style. The moment you step into this deli and restaurant, it’s pure organized pandemonium and I love every minute of it. The queue to be seated is out the door, the decibels from the voices of the boisterous staff as well as from the chatty customers is off the charts, and the sound of “who wants caw-fee” makes me feel right at home. Bagels, bagels, and bagels is what you leave with after chowing down on fresh whitefish salad, the best matzo brei, slices of oily, but not salty, nova lox and more. But also be sure to tuck a quart of matzo ball soup and a huge black and white cookie or homemade chocolate rugelach into your take-out bag. The latter never makes it past the exit for I-95 on the return trip to Brickell Key-good thing I’m not the one driving, but sitting in the passenger seat happily munching on the crumb-filled pastry.

Stephen’s Deli

Who would have thunk of all places to have a kosher deli, that Hialeah was the choice for the longest running deli in Miami. You don’t picture west Miami as the place that bubbe and zayde ( grandma and grandpa) would dine over a classic Reuben sandwich and a Brooklyn egg cream. Watching all the classic delis disappear, Stephen’s hung on, now going on 65 years. As it once was a booming Jewish-owned garment district, Stephen’s hasn’t let anyone forget the neighborhood roots. Although on their seventh owner, the current one is key. Matt Kuscher, restauranteur extraordinaire and owner of other successful Miami ventures such as Lokal and Kush has taken the helm, keeping the deli vibe complete with cracked Formica tables, making you feel like you’ve been coming here for 35 years.

Here, meat is king and a piled-high pastrami or corned beef on rye is waiting for you. The pleasantly salty meats are hand-carved and have been since 1945. But don’t just stop there. Make your table full with a side of creamy coleslaw, house-made sauerkraut and some of Kuscher’s Bubbie’s Matzo Ball Soup.

Trust me, it’s worth the small trek from downtown Miami to come to this homey, kitschy haven.

Pita Hut

Not a deli per se, but it would meet with my parents approval if they were alive today. We have a saying in our faith- Next year in Jerusalem. Well if you can’t make the trip to Israel, let Israel come to you.

Pita Hut located on 41st on Miami Beach in an enclave of Jewish businesses, this Israeli- focused eatery is packed with those craving the sun-drenched fare of the Middle East.

In place of heavy bagels and stacked sandwiches, you’ll dine on Israeli Salad, falafel, hummus, shawarma and probably THE best Baba Ganush in town. More Sephardic than the heavier Eastern European Jewish delicacies, brothers Yigal and Eithan bring the passion of their homeland in Israel to Miami Beach and also now in Aventura.

We don’t discriminate (even though as a people we have had that brought upon us in spades); one man’s Sunday bagel and lox is another man’s tabouli salad. It’s all good and it’s all food with a story and believe me, you’re not going anywhere when a Jewish tale is about to be told!

So while those glory days of hearing thick stresses of Yiddish while walking along Ocean Drive are long gone, traditions never really die. And while I’m grateful to my loving parents for cradling change and teaching me the value of taking chances, my beloved Jewish food will be one of the stable forces in my life I’ll cherish forever.

But wait......did you know that the Cuban and Jewish cultures have many similarities and share common bonds? Come find out the fascinating connection between these two Miami clans on our award-winning Little Havana food tour. This in-depth walking tour explores the best of Cuban culture and cuisine with commentary on how the Jewish faith intertwines with it all. We are looking forward to seeing you soon.

By Robyn Webb

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