Even before the subway doors open at 125th Street, you can feel Harlem’s buzz. Music ranges from hip-hop to tunes straight out of Senegal. Harlem hats are set up right next to patterned fabrics from Ghana. Saturdays showcase drummers, dancing teens, and street acts strumming guitars. To put it lightly, you don’t come to Harlem for the quiet.
But what you do come to my New York neighborhood for is the food, where eating well is a tradition. From seafood shacks to ramen hotspots, here are a few local favorites—plus a couple of things to see in-between meals.
Best for: brunch, biscuits, and chicken pan-fried to order
Set on the ground floor of a handsome brownstone, BLVD is a destination for those seeking modern soul food. The chicken is pan-fried to order, served golden brown in a basket with biscuits, and come prepared to answer what parts of the chicken you’re in the mood for. A quick tip: If you’re going for brunch, make sure to book a reservation. Otherwise, you may have to watch others biting into buttermilk biscuits, stuffed with scrambled eggs and aged cheddar, as you’re told there are no more tables.
LoLo’s Seafood Shack
Best for: smoked chicken wings, fries with pickled jalapeños, and peel-and-eat shrimp
Soon after my first bite of the wok-seared cauliflower, topped with herbs and garlic crema, I found myself taking alternative routes home to pass LoLo’s. I eventually worked my way through the sides of Johnny Cakes with honey butter, then fries topped with Cotija and pickled jalapeños, to name a few. This seafood shack has a few tables inside and a back garden with picnic-style tables, ideal for sharing plates of jerk ribs, conch fritters, or peel-and-eat shrimp. And the smoked chicken wings with achiote glaze make for a lovely picnic in nearby Morningside Park.
Best for: date night (arrive before your reservation to sip a cocktail at the bar)
From the low-lit dining room to the vibrant selection of house cocktails, The Cecil is prime date-night territory. Arrive before your reservation and take in the bar scene while sipping on a Southern Moment—a blend of bourbon, peach tea, and lemon. The menu is inspired by the African diaspora (or as the chef calls it, Afro-Asian-American cooking) and is a refreshing break from predictable menus. Personally, the braised goat dumplings with peanut piri piri and the tamarind-glazed oxtail with pickled cabbage and brown rice grits are my favorites.
Best for: dumplings, tonkotsu ramen, and Sapporo on draft
I’m at the door before Jin Ramen opens for dinner at 5 p.m., and I don’t care if it makes me old. Slurping ramen on a chilly Sunday afternoon without having to wait in a lengthy line is worth a little planning. The lines can be long here, so go early or late and grab a seat at the bar overlooking the kitchen, if possible. Both blistered shishito peppers and chicken dumplings make for a fine appetizer before the main ramen event. Choose between shio, shoyu, or tonkotsu ramen, all topped with braised pork belly, soft-boiled egg, and scallions.
67 Orange Street
Best for: cocktails and bar snacks
I’m a sucker for places I can’t see inside of. Slide behind dark red curtains to find a sleek but unpretentious watering hole with a soulful soundtrack. Some cocktail bars are best for a quick drink, but 67 Orange Street is the type of place to get a good seat, linger, and work your way through the cocktail menu. Ask the bartender about current favorites and, when hunger strikes, snack on some jerk buffalo wings or sweet potato fries. And if you’re feeling decadent, share the lobster and shrimp mac and cheese with a drinking buddy.
And Between Meals…
Food is a big reason to venture uptown, but once you arrive, there’s plenty to see while you digest for the next meal. Learn about the neighborhood's music history at the National Jazz Museum, or wander the galleries showcasing work by artists of African descent at the Studio Museum.
© 2016 AFAR Media