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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My First Harlem Adventure

Labor Day is supposed to be all about grilling out – burgers, steaks, and other standard picnic fare.  Unfortunately, I ran out of propane in my grill so I jumped at the chance to grab dinner with Lindsay on Monday night.  She was craving bbq and asked what my favorite place was.  Truth be told, I said, the best bbq is in Harlem so we headed uptown, veering away from bbq in favor of another picnic essential, fried chicken. 

I am ashamed to admit, I had never made it to Harlem in the four years I’ve lived here and it is safe to say, I have been missing out.  I suggest you experience Harlem for yourself now that it is in its second renaissance, especially in the 125th St. area.  Hip downtown residents are flocking to hot new places like Red Rooster but before I went new school, I knew I needed to try a classic so we passed on the glitz and went to Sylvia’s, a fried chicken palace and Harlem staple since 1962.

I began drooling the moment I sat down and scarfed down two pieces of sweet cornbread in seconds.  Even though the fried chicken plate I ordered promised to be huge, I saw chicken livers on the menu and could not help myself from getting an appetizer.  You may grimace at the idea of chicken livers, but I grew up eating bowls of them.  Only when Mildred prepares them, she also makes them with the gizzards and cooks them with onions in gravy, called “lizzards and gizzards.”  The livers at Sylvia’s also came with onions, but the gravy (and a dang good gravy it was) came on the side.  Of course, I poured it over the whole plate to best mimic the Mildred style.  They tasted very different from Mildred’s, as if the livers were seared, but it was a perfect appetizer.  I like to think of it as the poor man’s fois gras.

Lindsay and I both got the fried chicken but I ordered mine with collards and mac and cheese while she went with green beans and garlic mashed potatoes.  The collards were good, but actually not the best I’ve had (could have used a little more ham hock) but the potatoes were creamy with the perfect amount of garlic.  The chicken – no contest – is legit.  Even though we were stuffed, we had a feeling the desserts would be worth loosening our belts so we requested banana pudding.  We were saddened to hear they were all out but the waiter recommended their banana pudding cake.  He said it was new and therefore not as famous as their other cakes (red velvet, coconut, chocolate) but worth a try.  While we were vacillating between our options, the waiter struck up conversation.  I suppose he noticed a slight accent on me and asked where I was from.  Turns out, he spent some time in Savannah with the Army and we reminisced a bit while he gave me a few bar/restaurant tips in his native Harlem.  Once we bonded he decided to give us a sample of the banana pudding cake to help us make our dessert decision.  He came back with a full piece of cake, claiming it was a mere bite compared to the size of an actual slice.  It tasted like pudding in cake form with the cream baked into the cake along with nilla wafters, meringue, and fresh bananas.  It was unbelievable but the sample filled us up.  At only $5 a slice, I’ll probably take the bus back to Harlem just for another piece.  While I’m out there, I’ll have to throw in some more fried chicken because a huge plate with sides was only about $13.

After I calmed my father’s fears of me being mugged or raped, I explained that Harlem is not only a safe, happening part of town but the first place I found food that really tasted like it does at home.  I love me some Brother Jimmy’s, but if you’re craving real Southern food, trust a Southerner – Harlem is where it’s at.  Don’t be scared.  

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