Marcus Samuelsson Wants Streetbird to Be Harlem's Diner
All photos by Laura Shunk, the Village Voice
Drop in to Red Rooster for dinner and a drink almost any night of the week, and you'll likely feel swept up in a sea of Harlem royalty — neighbors greet one another over cocktails and connect each other with new friends; deals get signed at dining-room tables stacked with fried yardbird and sides of cornbread. Bill Clinton, whose office is in Harlem, and Mayor de Blasio make neighborhood-related political announcements at Red Rooster, and actors, musicians, and artists book booths in the downstairs lounge. The restaurant's success is a testament to the vision of chef and owner Marcus Samuelsson; when he opened the place, he says, Harlem desperately needed a neighborhood brasserie, and so that's what he created.
Now, four years later, Samuelsson thinks Harlem needs a diner — and so that's what he's opened with Streetbird (2149 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, 212-206-2557), a casual eatery dedicated to rotisserie chicken.
"By living in the community, I see what's missing, and I thought there was a need for a diner," he says. "Something everyone could relate to — a family restaurant. In Harlem, chicken is a good way to anchor around that need. I'm doing something affordable here. Chicken, no matter who you are, is very universal."
And so he's curing, spicing, and roasting birds, then serving the result in dishes and with sides that recall the food you'd eat at the park or a block party, with a specific Harlem flavor that pulls from Asian and Latin communities. There are pickles, mac 'n' cheese, and cheese fries (called Streetbird fries) on the menu, as well as green papaya salad and Sho'Nuff Noodles, a dish that recalls take-out lo mein. You can have your chicken tucked into Tack Tack, a house-fermented tortilla (injera bread, says Samuelsson, although it's flatter and, well, more tortilla-like than what you'll get at your favorite Ethiopian restaurant) with mole and pickled red onions. And you can finish with a Sweet Dog, a brioche roll layered with almond paste and whipped cream.
While Red Rooster is inspired by jazz, music, and art, Samuelsson rooted Streetbird in hip-hop and graffiti. "Hip-hop from the golden era of hip-hop has your mom's music in the background, but it gives it a twist," he says. "That's like this restaurant."
But as with Red Rooster, Streetbird transcends the food and the space; on a Monday night, five days after the doors opened, the place was slammed with locals, many of whom knew Samuelsson — and each other. They threw back mojitos and light beers, or popped in for take-out (Streetbird will eventually offer delivery, too). Effecting that familiar vibe is important to Samuelsson. "The goal is to connect with community," he says. "That's nothing we can force; it's something we have to earn. The community has embraced us so far — we've been overwhelmed. Where we go from here is up to us — we have to earn trust and work for that."
This is why, Samuelsson says, it took him so long to open a follow-up to Red Rooster: He was really concerned with giving the neighborhood something it needed. "This is a reflection of where we are," he says. "I want Streetbird to be like an Empire Diner up here."
Streetbird is open from 11:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily.
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