As 125th Street clogs with franchises like Starbucks, Old Navy, and the Disney Store—which make this sainted precinct feel like any other commercial strip on the East Coast—the heart of Harlem has drifted elsewhere. My favorite backward-leaning locale is the corner of 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, where the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture gazes disdainfully down on street action that could have been scripted from a Chester Himes novel. Newspapers are hawked from a wooden shipping flat as if they’d just fallen off a truck, while enterprising street vendors hustle everything from phone cards to pomade to hats of Niger River mud cloth. Bandaged patients emerge from Harlem Hospital rubbing their eyes in the bright winter sunlight, while the serpentine orange counter at Pan Pan is just beginning to feel the brunt of the lunch rush.
Every second diner is chowing down on waffles, which issue from a quartet of irons fuming in the corner. These chestnut-colored beauties are simultaneously crunchy and spongy, with deep wells that trap plenty of syrup, and a mellow, toasty flavor. Have them naked ($3.35 each), or paired with fried chicken in the manner that Harlem made famous, or sided with beef sausage that has a mule-kick of hot pepper. Known affectionately as Georgia sausage, these thick red links reflect the great African American migration from the Carolinas and Georgia 80 years ago, which made Harlem the city’s most rollicking and literary neighborhood. They’re still produced in Tifton, Georgia, and you can also get them at Umoja Meats (543 Malcolm X Boulevard, 212-491-9413). Other Southern vestiges persist at Pan Pan, such as the easy grace and lilting accent of the waitresses, and their habit of calling customers “darling” and “baby.”
Out of curiosity, I chose the waffle sandwich ($4.89), not knowing what to expect. Like other faux sandwiches of the Deep South—fried chicken and barbecued ribs come to mind—this creation is not a conventional sandwich at all. The waffle comes on one plate, while another holds a scrambled egg, folded like a napkin and snuggling a round of sage breakfast sausage. A yellow blob spreads over the waffle, confirming a sign that proclaims, “We Serve Oleo.”
Many of soul food’s greatest hits are superbly rendered, including one of Harlem’s best fried chicken platters ($7.35), the crisp skin perfectly intact and only lightly dusted with flour, as they still do it at places like Son’s and Thelma’s in Atlanta. The pork sandwich ($6.39) is as fine an example of Carolina cue as you’re likely to find in these parts, though, like its model, the chopped meat is tasty without being particularly smoky. The thick barbecue sauce furnishes the oomph. While abundant and carrot-dotted, the oxtails need a brisk shake of salt.
But sometimes it’s more fun to opt for culinary oddities. Which drove me one afternoon to order the bologna hamburger ($2.59). Would it be a burger topped with a slice of luncheon meat? Bologna ground up into a burger? Neither. What materialized was a thick slice of grilled luncheon meat, clipped in four places so it fanned out into an iron cross, and planted on a seeded bun with lettuce, tomato, and mayo. This proletarian gutbomb may not be for everyone. But at least you won’t find it at Starbucks.