The spot featured in this week’s review — charming, charismatic Mountain Bird — deftly balances the predicament of operating a destination-worthy restaurant while keeping the food at a price point meant to entice neighborhood residents. Down the street from the bistro’s understated tile floors and slow-simmered turkey goulash, the intersection of 145th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard buzzes with car horns and pedestrian traffic. Amid the hubbub, the bright silver matchbox of a stall that houses O’Fishole Seafood (274 West 145th Street, 212-234-2601) fosters its own kind of commotion, with patrons lined up for fried seafood, burgers, and sausage sandwiches and hefty portions of steamed mussels for $5.
Skip this shack for its looks, and you’ll miss out on some exemplary fish frying. The flaky white fish fillets and fried shrimp sport greaseless crusts, the fried batter crackled and craggy (seasoned cornmeal for the whiting, a Cajun-spiced mixture for the shrimp). A combination of the two with your choice of side (we opted for disappointingly soggy sweet potatoes — don’t follow our lead) runs a modest $14.50 and easily feeds two. If only they’d invest in some better (or hell, homemade) tartar and hot sauces. Still, the crisp, fried marine life is nearly perfect on its own.
Opened in 2009 as a revamp of the owner’s previous endeavor, a fast food stand called Willie’s Burgers, O’Fishole still carries the beefy torch with cheap hamburgers ($3 for plain, $3.75 for cheeseburgers) and even cheaper hot dogs and sausage sandwiches. There’s no magic 80/20 ratio, no cooking temperature requests, and no one has ever heard of some guy named Pat LaFrieda. The seeded bun is pliant if nondescript; the lettuce, tomato, pickles, and fried onions sing their condiment chorus in unity. But ultimately, the meat is a dull, paper-thin letdown even if the flavors are reminiscent of a Whopper. Sometimes, a deal is a deal for a reason.
With a 4 a.m. closing time on weekends, O’Fishole is a boon for Harlem night owls looking to sate their substance-enhanced munchies. But we enjoy it most during the day, when locals flock to the sidewalk shack itching for a taste of charcoal-kissed jerk chicken, which the cooks nurture for hours on a barrel grill positioned under a fire escape as the intoxicating Maillard reaction fumes waft into the street. Come springtime, you know where to find us.