Rack & Soul
258 West 109th Street, New York NY 10025 (b/n Broadway and Amsterdam; map); 212-222-4800
Service: Friendly and relaxed
Setting: Funkily elegant space designed by Tony Award-winning set designer John Lee Beatty
Compare It To: Blue Smoke, Sylvia's
Must-Haves: Fried chicken, baby back ribs, pork shoulder, shrimp po' boy
Cost: $16 for fried chicken, two sides, and biscuits
When it opened three years ago Rack & Soul brought together three unlikely partners: New York's legendary uptown fried chicken master and soul food truck/restaurateur, Charles Gabriel; an Alabama competition barbecue pit master John Wheeler; and last year's Memphis in May grand champ (his team was called "The Natural Born Grillers"); and restaurateur Michael Eberstadt, a Jewish New Yorker who was in the forefront of the Harlem restaurant renaissance when he opened A Slice of Harlem and Bayou just north of 125th Street almost ten years ago. Now that I'm writing this, it's clear that when you put these three characters together, you end up in a cross-cultural Obama world.
Fast forward to 2009.
The truck and then restaurant that Charles had on 155th Street and 8th Avenue are sitting dormant. A Slice of Harlem and Bayou are no more. And Rack & Soul, getting killed by the deepening recession and its inflated Broadway rent, moved around the corner to 109th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam—not exactly a restaurant row or magnet for strolling Upper West Siders looking for the city's best damn fried chicken or exemplary baby back ribs made from a genuine Old Hickory smoker.
Last week I ordered some chicken and ribs from Rack & Soul, and both were delivered by Charles himself. I greeted Charles at the door: "You're Charles." "Yes, I am," he responded with a shy smile and nod. Inspired by the fine takeout food and seeing Charles again, I decided to go to the new Rack & Soul. Because if everything else was up to snuff, I knew I had hit the Super Bowl party food trifecta: Fried chicken, real smoked barbecued ribs, and fried shrimp with oyster po' boys, which Michael Eberstadt had imported from the now-defunct Bayou menu.
The fried chicken is most certainly the star of the show, with good reason. Charles cooks it in huge, black cast iron skillets, the way fried chicken purists and traditionalists insist it be cooked. Crisp and crunchy on the outside, it also comes out of those pans miraculously free of grease. Even the breasts are tender and juicy. This is fried chicken worthy of serious eaters' Super Bowl parties or any other occasion that cries out for great food. Charles doesn't season his chicken very much (it needs a little salt), but other than that, it's chicken for the gods.
Wheeler's ribs are smokey and tender, and maybe as good as baby backs get in this town. But they're marred by oversaucing. Come on Rack & Soul, let your serious eaters decide how much sauce they want on their ribs.
Pork butt, smoked for more than 12 hours in the Old Hickory Smoker, is just about the equal of the baby backs. Wheeler is an unsung New York pit master and I can't really figure out why. I think New York food writers are skeptical about any barbecue in this town, but Wheeler is the real deal. You win Memphis in May, you know what you're doing.
The fried seafood po' boy sandwiches—another item like the fried chicken that most New York restaurants do not do well by—are actually damn good. The shrimp and oysters are perfectly fried, the sandwiches are properly dressed with mayo, shredded lettuce, and tomato. They almost, but not quite, achieve the right "crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside" po' boy standard of the best joints in New Orleans (like the Parkway Tavern). I don't think the right kind of po' boy bread can be found in New York.
Dessert here features a fine red velvet cake from a local Harlem bakery and a housemade frozen lemon pie, which could use a little more tang and tartness, and less sweetness.
If you're searching for Super Bowl party food options in New York, look no further than Rack & Soul. The restaurant may be harder to find now that it's on a side street, but that really doesn't matter. They will deliver the fried chicken, ribs, three sides, and biscuits for less than $20 a head.
Who needs David Chang and his pricey, fancypants Bo Ssam Super Bowl platters (which are undeniably delicious), when we have Rack & Soul, especially in these times? Not us.