Old “Down South”, Newly Uptown


Charles’ Pan-Fried Chicken | 2841 Frederick Douglass Blvd., nr. 151st St. | 212-281-1800

FOR A LARGE PART OF my youth I was not aware of the culinary category known as soul food. The family-cooked meals I grew up with were just that: the food I grew up with. Much like growing up in the City of New York, I couldn’t really appreciate soul food until people who hadn’t grown up with it relate to me memories of their first experiences with it.

My family is from the South—”down sowf’”, as we call it—and many transplanted here to the North and brought their cooking with them. I grew up in Manhattan and the Bronx with different members of my family, so this “soul food” that everyone else spoke of so highly once I became an adult was always just food to me. I boldly compare myself to other cultures whose indigenous cuisines have, for better or worse, been embraced and/or adopted by formerly more conservative palates (and then egregious consequences occur like when people from Connecticut tell me that their favorite sushi roll is called a “Philly” and contains, yes, cream cheese, and—oh, no—cooked beef!).

And much like you can judge the quality of the items on a sushi menu by sampling the raw tuna, you can judge how seriously a “Southern-style” restaurant runs its kitchen by the esteem of its fried chicken. And since comfort foods are making a huge comeback in the city’s restaurants, their has been plenty talk about which has the best fried chicken.

kac_091111_phude_charles_10_b_600When this discussion first started a few years back, there was high praise for a place called Rack and Soul, located in upper west Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. Due to a last-minute cancelled date, I never made it to that spot. But I did hear and read rave reviews about the fried poultry (including this one from New York Magazine), and a North Carolinian named Charles Gabriel (the acclaimed frymaster behind the recipe and technique), who has since left that space and has opened Charles’ Pan-Fried Chicken up in west Harlem.

My friend, Danny, made envious by viewing many of my foodie excursions, volunteered to join me, so we hoppped into his car and drove up yesterday afternoon around 3 in the afternoon. After driving past the street where my mother grew up, and later the street where she presently lives, we found a parking spot on 151st Street and walked a few steps to this almost too modest storefront.


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Once inside, the vibe was lo-fi yet still very comfortable and homey, and the smells of my favorite meals from childhood huddled in the air. We grabbed a table and made our way to the $13 all-you-can-eat buffet ($10 during lunch).


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The buffet included all of the staple “soul food” trappings: smothered pork chops, black-eyed peas, corn, rice, bbq chicken wings, yams, mashed potatoes, pig’s feet, collard greens, and others. Then there was the piéce de resistance, the golden-crusted, aromatic, sweet-looking chicken itself, in its own warmer, just minutes out of the oversized skillet in which they were fried.


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Approaching the buffet, I am made to feel more like it’s a family gathering by the choice of dinnerware, which consists of thick paper plates and plastic cutlery. And just like the plates I have always been trying to make myself at Cheeseboro reunion picnics, I realize that I can’t possibly put everything I want to try on just one plate, so I opt for a first round of fried chicken, collard greens, pork chops, black-eyed peas, chicken wings, corn, and macaroni and cheese.


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First things first; the chicken is quite sublime. Crispy, tasty skin that’s nicely seasoned—but not overly salty—and actually sticks to the juicy, tender chicken meat with every eager bite. The collards greens were splendid with robust, savory leafiness and firm but not stringy stems. The mac ‘n’ cheese as I prefer, a nice cheesy, casserole, more set than creamy or soupy. The staff was even kind enough to remember (?!) to alert us of added availibility of cold potato salad, which very well could have been my second favorite part of the meal.

I could go on about the other items—and positively so—but much like my disposition throughout the whole meal, I was not so much concerned about analysis and criticism as I was about just sticking my head down and enjoying the heck out of life for 20 minutes. Which I did. (Usually, I take breaks during the meal to take additional photos, and had planned especially to do so here to show the juiciness of the the inside of the chicken peices; once I started eating, however, I never wanted to stop! So, more pictures of as-of-yet untouched food.)


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Danny and I were lucky to meet the humble, gracious, and soft-spoken Charles Gabriel as he entered his restaurant near the end of our (futile) attempts at second plates of food. I alerted him of my PHUDE-nyc blog and my extreme pleasure and satisfaction with the repast we had just ordered. He kindly offered us a free slice of red velvet cake and some cornbread. Danny and I, though, couldn’t fathom another bite, but were gladly sated by the arrival of a new batch of chicken that arrived as we were walking out the door.


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We drove back downtown, looking forward to the food nap we had so richly earned and deserved. It was not even 5 p.m. and we happily knew would not need to eat for the rest of the evening. Not only were our appetites sated, but our “souls” were as well. When someone makes these otherwise simple foods this well, it becomes rather comforting to know that someone cares that much to make an effort to do so—even for you—whether it’s a family member or a relative stranger.

And, while in the car, Danny and I marveled at how finally some folks are starting to care (again) about the Harlem community in general, as we spotted some sites that showed that someone has started to make an effort in that regard as well.


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Bun Apple Tea!

.kac.

Charles' Country Pan Fried Chicken on Urbanspoon


Charles’ Pan-Fried Chicken | 2841 Frederick Douglass Blvd., nr. 151st St. | 212-281-1800



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