Fried fish has long been a big deal in Harlem. As African-Americans from Georgia and the Carolinas migrated northward to New York in the first half of the 20th century, they brought their love of catfish with them. But finding no precise equivalent in the area’s waterways, they substituted it with the ubiquitous, cheap, and mouth-watering whiting, a snowy-fleshed local fish with a delicate texture that recalled catfish, but lacked its muddy flavor.
Places selling whiting sandwiches—on white or whole wheat, liberally squirted with tartar and Tabasco—soon sprang up from 110th Street to Washington Heights. During their heyday, these small cafés and carry-outs must have numbered 50 or more. Some also sold steamed crabs, showing the influence of Baltimore and D.C. on the local cuisine. By the mid-’80s, catfish farming made it possible to reintroduce catfish to the menu, but whiting was already firmly planted in the popular taste. Sadly, the number of fried-fish places has dwindled over the last few years, so that now only a handful remain.
For years, my favorite was an odd place on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 125th Street with the duplex name Servants of God/A Taste of Seafood. It was run by a Bronx church as a profit-yielding enterprise—hence the “Servants of God” part. Piled high with fillets, the whiting sandwich was beyond compare; the mac and cheese was rich and fluorescently orange; the shrimp was crisp and fresh-tasting; and the chicken wings were dinosaur-size and fried a perfect shade of brown. The fries were only so-so, but the red-velvet cake made up for it, and the coconut cake beat the hell out of that.
Come lunch, a line snaked out the door, filled with customers willing to wait 20 minutes or more to grab the fish. Like Seinfeld‘s Soup Nazi, Servants of God maintained order in the line by imposing rules. The first rule was that, if you somehow managed to score one of the rare seats at the counter (which were incredibly uncomfortable), you were required to keep track of your position in the queue, and were permitted to order only when it was your turn. (The waitresses keep careful track—no butting in line!)
When the place closed a couple of years ago, I was forlorn. Except that it didn’t close forever—it bided its time and then moved across the street. Now, it’s merely called A Taste of Seafood, and God’s fry-o-lators have been reinstalled in a deluxe two-story space with purple light fixtures and a smattering of nautical décor. In a spacious open kitchen at the rear of the first floor, a congregation of cooks cooperate to produce fried seafood with standards of perfection rarely seen in fancier establishments. Though spacious booths line one wall, these are invariably occupied by folks waiting for carry-out. Hike upstairs if you want to dine in.
The whiting sandwich ($4.50) remains the core of the menu—three perfect fillets breaded with a combo of flour and cornmeal, trapped between slices of white. For an extra dollar, you can have catfish—rotund, narrower fillets. Don’t pray for any muddy flavor—this is farmed catfish. Both of these selections are also offered in a panoply of configurations featuring fries and sides. The menu has been expanded since the across-the-street days, and now a couple of whole fish are available, bones and all, lightly breaded and fried. The red snapper ($13) is strictly for high-rollers, while the so-called porgy sandwich ($8) is a small specimen, just the right size for one person, and the clerk at the cash register may or may not remember to throw a couple of slices of bread in the paper basket when he calls your number. In Harlem, a sandwich is just a state of mind.
The chicken wings remain superlative, crisp-skinned and served with chips and sides. I won’t bother repeating the complex price schedule listed on the menu, but you can get eight wings by themselves for $9. The wings are so big that I’d hate to run into the chickens that produced them in a dark alleyway. Among the sides, the mac and cheese still burns itself into your memory with its orangeness, and the collard greens are notably cooked without either fatback or smoked turkey, which is a plus in my book. Fried or steamed okra is another fine option.
The menu lists some even higher-end stuff, including steamed king crabs, snow crabs, ocean scallops, and lobster tails. Skip ’em. This is a fried-fish spot, after all.