The crown jewel of northern Manhattan, Harlem’s creative and socioeconomic identity has undergone — as all neighborhoods are subject to — a series of transformations since the renaissance of the 1920s. And while it hasn’t experienced enough gentrification in recent years to qualify as the “Williamsburg of the North”, there’s been a significant uptick in commercial and residential development, including Richie Notar’s Lenox Lounge project and Richard Parsons’ recently-opened The Cecil, which anchors this list. Even if many of these developments are symptomatic of the sobering fact that Manhattan is charging ever onward toward becoming a rollicking island paradise for the ultra-rich, the neighborhood’s vibrant culinary history has remained somewhat of a constant. The businesses may have changed, succumbing to public opinion and the cultural persuasions of the time, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone’s ever had a difficult time finding a great meal in Harlem, regardless of the day or year. Here are our 10 Best.
10. The Cecil, 210 West 118th Street, 212-866-1262
Former Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons opened this “Afro-Asian-American brasserie” in September with a menu from Alexander Smalls, a pioneer of what the chef describes as Southern revival cooking. In addition to traditional West African dishes like yassa, a marinated and roasted poultry dish (here with poussin), and the skewered kebab-like meat called suya, flavors and spices from African-influenced cultures abound. At that dangerous intersection where tradition meets trend, The Cecil succeeds with share plates that feel homey rather than opulent: a wide casserole of rosemary and pepper ham-spiked macaroni and cheese, “Afro / Asian / American Gumbo” brimming with smoked turkey, shrimp, crab, and Chinese chicken sausage. You might take your scat-deprived ears over to Parsons’ adjacent jazz club, Minton’s, which opened in the old Minton’s Playhouse in late October.
9. Cuchifritos, 168 East 116th Street, 212-876-4846
An East Harlem staple for Puerto Rican food, Cuchifritos has been selling its eponymous fried snacks for over 50 years — maybe it has something to do with the illuminated marquee, which beckons nighttime revelers with its red and gold lights. Piles of fritters, meat stuffed potatoes, plantains, and cassava threaten to tumble out of their warming trays. There are soups, rotisserie chickens, and roast pork and blood sausage by the pound. Most impressive of all may be the jibaro en canoa, a plantain canoe stuffed with a bevy of meat passengers including pork and beef tongue, ear, and stomach.
8. Jin Ramen, 3183 Broadway, 646-559-2862
A traditional ramen-ya that wears its heart on its sleeve, Jin (the kanji character for benevolence) is owned and operated by locals, some of whom have ties to nearby Columbia University. Miso ramen is the casual spot’s specialty, and the kitchen puts out lovely pork bone broths (one spicy, one not), but it’s the lightest broth that has the most nuance. After hours of simmering, the deceptively light and clear chicken-based shio ramen broth practically vibrates with yuzu-kosho, a Japanese chili pepper and yuzu rind paste. The citrus gives the soup a delightfully floral nose; a perfect partner to thin, springy noodles and tender chashu pork belly. In keeping with the restaurant’s ethos, the owners are active in several community charities. From the looks of the nightly crowds, the neighborhood wants to give back.
7. ABV, 1504 Lexington Avenue, 212-722-8959
At this cavernous wine bar from the team that runs Earl’s Beer & Cheese, cocktail bar The Guthrie Inn, and doughnut and coffee shop Dough Loco, Corey Cova cooks a roster of laid-back, contemporary plates. Although he hails from a state that has banned its usage, the man does wonders with foie gras. Having previously paired it with an Eggo waffle at Earl’s, at ABV the luxurious seared lobe comes as part of a “Fluffernutter” with marshmallow, peanut butter, apple, and hazelnut crumble. Sherry and amaro cocktails make oleo-saccharum out of the lack of a liquor license, and after years of cooking without a gas hookup, the restaurant is investing in renovations, which will allow for a proper gas grill and other kitchen equipment. With an expanded repertoire and Cova back at the helm after a hiatus while opening Dough Loco, things are only looking up.
6. Abyssinia, 268 West 135th Street, 212-281-2673
Before expanding to this brick-and-mortar operation, Frehiwot Reta used to cook and sell Ethiopia’s national carbohydrate, injera, out of her apartment. Her underground bread game was so good that Ethiopian expats and restaurants in the area were purchasing their injera from her on the regular. Without the constraints of a home kitchen, she and husband Daniel serve up plates of traditional Abyssinian fare like rust-colored chicken doro wat spiced with chili-tinged berbere and the samosa-like sambusa, filled with either ground beef or lentils. For a taste of the original soul food, a heap of shredded collard greens sautéed with onions, garlic, and green peppers makes for a refreshing pairing for the normally vinegar-soaked vegetable. Mead-heads take note: Opt for a glass of tej, Ethiopian honey wine brewed with buckthorn.
5. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, 700 West 125th Street, 212-694-1777
In razzle-dazzle 1980s, barbecue culture was still primarily based in the South — and that’s when John Stage opened the first Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Syracuse, New York. The chain boasts two hallmark items, mammoth chicken wings and tender pork ribs, both of which hinge on Dinosaur’s addictive smoky-sweet barbecue sauce. Dishes like fried green tomatoes with smoked shrimp remoulade, as well as simple sides like Syracuse-style boiled salt potatoes, reveal the attention to detail put into the menu. That Stage chose Harlem as the neighborhood for his initial NYC outpost in 2004 helped to signal a shift in the kinds of restaurants opening in the neighborhood.
4. Patsy’s Pizzeria, 2287 First Avenue, 212-534-9783
Pasquale “Patsy” Lancieri is one of the founding fathers of New York pizza genealogy; he was trained by Gennaro Lombardi. Lancieri also inspired nephew Patsy Grimaldi to start his own pizza legacy. The restaurant has licensed its name to a local chain affiliated with Nick’s Pizza in Forest Hills, but the East Harlem original still fires up a solid coal-kissed product by the pie or slice. Fun fact courtesy of Slice blogger Adam Kuban: Patsy’s is the only coal-oven pizzeria in Manhattan that sells by the slice. The thin crust and sweet sauce taste that much better coming out of an oven with more history than a young-earth creationist text book.
3. Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken, 2839 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, 212-281-1800
Not only does Charles Gabriel fry our favorite chicken in Harlem, a neighborhood with an indelible connection to the dish, he fries the best chicken in the city. In addition to constantly tending to the meat as it cooks, Gabriel seasons his bird three separate times before it gets to the warming tray at this renowned Harlem buffet. Without a sludgy batter to weigh it down, the fowl — coated in peppery dry rub, moistened with egg wash, and dredged in flour — achieves a thin crust devoid of grease and perfumed with spice. Other items from the warming trays — like smothered pork chops, macaroni and cheese, and stewed okra with tomatoes — hold their own next to such greatness.
2. Café Ollin, 339 East 108th Street, 212-828-4252
Yet another restaurant fighting the good fight in the battle against Angeleno-transplants who incessantly opine about the lack of good Mexican food in this city, Café Ollin is best known for its sizable cemitas and tortas, which can easily feed two for just $8. In addition to these familiar sandwiches, the kitchen occasionally features pambazos, a chorizo- and potato-stuffed, guajillo chili-soaked sandwich made from sturdy, oblong white bread. High rollers can opt for one of the better renditions of chile rellenos in town, massive battered and fried poblano peppers stuffed with melty Oaxaca cheese. Say nay all you want, Californians, but color us convinced.
1. Fishers of Men II, 121 West 125th St, 212-678-4268
Thank you New York City, for providing us with a restaurant with connections to a church that sells expertly fried fish sandwiches and Papaya King-style hot dogs and smoothies. The hybrid restaurant also has ties to Harlem’s Famous Fish Market, which was featured on Martha Stewart for its food as much as for its legendary lines. You’ll find the same delectable fried seafood at this location, including fried whiting sandwiches on thick, pillowy slices of white bread and sweet, plump shrimp. Although not as cost effective as a Gray’s Papaya recession special, a fish sandwich and a papaya drink make as good a cheap meal as any.