Harlem Shaken Up

HARLEM SHAKE | 100 West 124th St. (on Lenox Ave.) | 212.222.8300 | harlemshakenyc.com | | | | | | Harlem Shake on Urbanspoon


I WILL EVENTUALLY HAVE TO write a full dissertation on what Harlem has become—or is presently becoming. I grew up in Harlem. All over Harlem, in fact, having family and friends who I saw every week (if not every day) who lived in and all over EAST and WEST HARLEM, and the smaller neighborhoods that made up those whole areas of Upper Manhattan.

So when sporadically revisiting the Harlem area from my 25+ year residency on the Upper East Side—which I used to refer to as “downtown” when I was a young Harlemite!—I’ve gotten to experience a range of nostalgia.

As new restaurants whose names don’t end in “Fried Chicken” or “Soul Food Kitchen” have opened up to formerly unseen levels of fanfare, I have worried that this new Harlem would retain none of the character of the neighborhood where kids would ride on the back of buses, have summer block parties with open fire hydrant sprinklers, or even be allowed to buy “loosie” cigarettes for an adult relative. Or kids would, unfortunately, be taught to believe that any white people in the neighborhood were either bill collectors, missionaries, or undercover police officers. Or just plain lost.

But as Harlem now enjoys a sort of second “renaissance” of new (or redeveloped) residences, bigger businesses, and a huge bump in tourism, the visual demographic of this new Harlem has been unavoidably noticeable to someone like me who isn’t up here often, and seems to be most welcomed by most if not all locals.

(I’ve already commented in previous posts how the influx of hipsters to East Harlem has led me to rename that neighborhood “HARLEMBURG”.)

Just as welcomed is the immediately popular BURGER (fries, milkshake) spot, Harlem Shake, on Lenox and 124th in WEST HARLEM. Much like the more known at RED ROOSTER just a couple of blocks away, you should expect an extremely diverse crowd of customers when you first arrive there. You should also expect the same kind burger/fries/milkshake menu that many other burger joints have somewhat successfully re-appropriated from Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack highly successful model. (See BURGERFI, SCHNIPPER’S, STEAK & SHAKE etc.)


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Harlem Shake


Of course, this being one of the many new places in Harlem that “authenticates” itself as Harlem by putting the word Harlem in its name (see Harlem Tavern, Harlem Social Club, Harlem Public), it likewise has to define itself as a culturally indigenous. That’s covered by the decor with a portrait of its mascot(?) Miss Harlem Girl (a stunningly beautiful and bodacious young black woman in style retro afro, short shorts, and strappy heels), and by a “wall of fame” featuring a collection of African American notables of from the arts, culture, and politics—the most recognizable outside the black community Questlove, Puff Daddy) seemingly featured right in the middle for all to see. (Figurative first black) President Bill Clinton is there as well.


Harlem Shake

Harlem Shake


And Harlem Shake rightfully attempts to define itself by the food, which was the real reason I was here anyway. I was tempted to make the trip spotting the available toppings of jerk mayo and pork rinds. They were out of pork rinds by the time I arrive, post lunch/brunch rush. (I did think it was odd that I when I first asked for the pork rinds topping, the girl who took my order seem to have no idea what I was talking about. Even after repeating myself a few times, she responded with “Pork grinds?“)

I ordered what’s called the Harlem Classic double patty cheeseburger. I did get it with it the jerk mayo, as well as with American cheese, and the similarly unique-ish topping of pickled cherry pepper RELISH. They offer jerk fries as well. I always prefer my fries just plainly salted.


Harlem Shake Classic Burger

Harlem Shake Classic Burger

Harlem Shake Classic Burger

Harlem Shake Classic Burger

Harlem Shake Classic Burger



Harlem Shake Fries

The burger was very good. It should be; the formula works. A thin, (spatula-)smashed (Pat la Frieda beef) patty, generously salted and seared on both sides by an ample amount of rendered beef fat to give it that desired almost crispy caramelization on the patty’s exterior. An aromatic, airy yet sturdy toasted Martin’s potato bun is as good a vehicle as any for this type of burger, and even held up nicely to an healthy slather of tongue-tingling jerk mayo, and the nostril-clearing sweet acidity and heat of the cherry pepper relish, affectionately specked with bacon.

I usually like to try the burger of a new place as unadulterated as possible, out of respect for the beef, which I always want to make sure I can taste without distraction. But, even with Pat la Frieda beef (which at this point doesn’t carry the same cache—to me at least—as it used to), I kind of know what to expect from this common iteration of burger. I expect it to be good, and this one not only was good, but I thought made better and more interesting by both the jerk mayo and the pepper relish.

The tasty triple-fried fries stayed refreshingly crispy on the outside, warm and fluffy on the inside, and, as should be, are properly compliment by dollops of just regular ketchup

Still wish I they had the pork rinds they had no idea I was asking for, though. Next time definitely. (Yes, there will happily be a next time.)

Speaking of service, the girls behind the counter where kind of curt and seemingly impatient (although I knew exactly what I wanted and had a simple order). The owner—who I only recognized as such just having seen her picture on the internet 30 minutes prior—was more than kind and sweet and attentive and on-the-ball and taking care of a million things at once.


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Her name is JELENA PASIC, and—yes, I was very surprised to find that Harlem Shake was owned, opened, and operated by a woman from Croatia.

But I found that to be a pleasant surprise, as I found this new makeup of new Harlem. It’s not like I don’t think Harlem can have nice things. Harlem was long ago the very epitome of “nice things” in New York City, proudly representing the Jazz age for musicians, bands, and vocalist, to the entire world. And consequentially bringing the entire world to harlem, eager to dine in its fine restaurants, frequent its many clubs, theaters, and lounges, and emulate many of its unique styles.

So maybe new Harlem can become new old Harlem. A re-rebirth—or re-renaissance—if you will. Folks of all walks are migrating to a neighborhood that—although still has its grit, grime, and grunge—has growing greatness again as well.

And if New York wants to still claim its the “melting pot” capital of the world, New Old Harlem might be the very last section of the whole five boroughs where that is visibly evident.

Harlem Shake

Harlem Shake


There is still much of the Harlem I grew up in just south of 123rd and north of 127th. And as I walked around the neighborhoods I as a kid for years used to walk through, live and play in, I found myself optimistic that much of Harlem’s charms and older charms are still very much intact. If new “blood” feels welcomed to thrive here, I think it can do so without “mall-ifying” the entire neighborhood. Harlem is so expensive that it would take decades to get rid of all the decent fish fry places, or restaurants that still make great oxtail or goat curry over rice dishes from scratch. I have many more old and new places to explore in Harlem.

And if food is one of the most attractive selling points to the newbies—relocated families, hipsters, blipsters (my affectionate term for black hipsters), and global visitors on work visas (or not)—then I need to do a lot more exploring in this booming ‘hood.

I myself might not feel the ever-growing need to move out of the city, what with Harlem still reticently holding on to the old while not just embracing, but developing the new. It would still be a place I would recognize and feel genuinely at home in.

And I might be able to forgive the corporate and architectural intrusion of, let’s say, the Applepie’s on 125th and Madison, if I new I could easily enjoy a Harlem Classic Burger—with pickled cherry pepper relish and fried pork rinds—just around the figurative corner.


Harlem Shake

Bun Apple Tea!

KACNYC


HARLEM SHAKE | 100 West 124th St. (on Lenox Ave.) | 212.222.8300 | harlemshakenyc.com | | | | | | Harlem Shake on Urbanspoon

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