If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be a sardine, drop by the corner of Madison Avenue and 125th Street on a sunny winter afternoon. Occupying a prime location still unclaimed by Starbucks or the Body Shop, the timeworn storefront enigmatically proclaims “Servants of God” and “A Taste of Seafood.” A line that snakes out the front door dominates nearly all the space inside the cramped premises. The few rickety stools ranged along the counter accommodate only a fraction of the clientele; most wait patiently for carryout. Smallness necessitates military precision—if you’re lucky enough to find a seat, the countergal notes your place, and you won’t be served until your virtual turn in line arrives. You wonder, why is this place so mobbed?
Behind the counter, an aproned chef presides over a bank of four bubbling Fry-O-Lators. To his left stand fish fillets, a vat of cornmeal, and a small TV wrapped loosely in plastic. Deftly dredging four at a time, he keeps the production line going, tossing whiting into fryer number one. This locally caught cod cousin has been a Harlem favorite for decades, maybe because it resembles in texture, size, and price the catfish beloved of Southern cooks. At least a dozen neighborhood places specialize in it, made into white-bread sandwiches swabbed thickly with tartar sauce. At Taste of Seafood, the fish is preternaturally fresh, and the temperature and age of the oil are carefully monitored, so there is no greasiness or rancidity. The fried fillet has the mildest possible taste, with an authoritative crackle delivered by the cornmeal. Pay $2 for a bulging sandwich between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., $4 thereafter, and pray that fancier chefs downtown don’t discover whiting.
Most fry joints in Harlem make abysmal fried shrimp, but Taste of Seafood is an exception. The crustaceans are modestly sized, lightly coated, and fried so quickly that the flesh remains moist, light, and sweet. A chorus line of sauces in squirt bottles features Tabasco, grainy Creole mustard, tartar sauce, white vinegar, ketchup, and jerk sauce; most customers stick to tartar and Tabasco. The shrimp (dinner $8) are cooked in the second fryer, while the third is reserved for french fries that are, alas, of the frozen variety. The fourth is exclusively for chicken wings (five for $5). Instead of cornmeal, these are coated with a light dusting of flour, a technique copied from Harlem’s most esteemed chicken palaces. Wings take a lot longer to cook, so the waitress warns you by noting they will take an additional 15 minutes. Do I have to tell you it’s worth the wait?
Instead of fries, accompany your fish, shrimp, or wings with the standard Harlem sides (mostly $2). The mac and cheese is supreme, each morsel coated with cheese, with a crust on top that’s doled out with complete evenhandedness. Collards are sweet but not fatty, dotted with bits of smoked turkey wing, while yams are plenty yammy and potato salad is a cooling puree dotted with pickles. Save room for a slice of the red velvet cake ($3). This rich Southern specialty has an arresting tint traditionally achieved with the juice from a can of beets. You can’t beat it.