Few categories of American cuisine are as robust and impervious to fashion as soul food. While dainty small plates continue to take over New York's trendy restaurants and new cuisines arrive at the city's shores on a daily basis, soul food, rugged and meaty and eminently craveable, laughs it all off.
To find the tradition alive and well in New York, you need look no further than Harlem, where fried chicken and mac and cheese are regular restaurant staples. Soul food's influence is so prevalent that you'd need months to try everything the neighborhood has to offer, so we looked to the locals, asking where they go for fried chicken, waffles, mac and cheese, and more.
Miss Mamie's Spoonbread Too
No one does the classics as well as Miss Mamie's Spoonbread Too. To start, its bestselling Fried Chicken ($16 with two sides) is intensely seasoned, nicely crisp, and generously portioned—you may have trouble polishing off two pieces alone. For dessert there's Peach Cobbler ($6), which, fair warning, is syrupy-sweet, but a salted crust adds some balance.
Dessert at Miss Mamie's has been enough to bring customers back for more: "I was here when the restaurant re-opened, and all I remember is the dessert and the corn bread," admitted longtime patron Rouchelle Glover, who counts the restaurant as one of her favorites in the neighborhood.
If Miss Mamie's is all about the classics, Melba's gets a little more modern. "You. Cannot. Touch. Melba's," we heard from one customer while digging into the restaurant's Fried Chicken and Eggnog Waffles ($15) served with strawberry butter. The crunchy-edged, fluffy waffles get their eggnog flavor from a heavy dose of eggs, cream, and nutmeg.
The dish doesn't come with sides included, so you'll need to order the Mac and Cheese ($5) separately. Al dente macaroni is enveloped in a gooey sauce composed of cheese and buttermilk that's delicious even when it starts to cool.
Tourists from all over the country come to Sylvia's—buses line up outside the restaurant—but it's retained a strong local fan base. Almost everyone we chatted with in the neighborhood recommended it, and its history and abundantly friendly service are winning draws.
The fried chicken gets plenty of love, but the Barbecue Ribs ($18 with two sides) are also worth a look. The ribs come glazed in a tangy-sweet sauce and give way from the bone with the slightest tug. They're more about braised meat than smoke or spice, but if you're looking to add some heat, Sylvia's house hot sauce complements the tangy tomato glaze nicely.
Amy Ruth's makes no pretensions to high brow, white-tablecloth sensibilities. The wall decor is worn, the floor is tiled, and red upholstered chairs recall your hometown diner. That familiarity, coupled with an above average menu, keeps the clientele loyal.
Daily specials are named after black celebrities, such as the Al Roker (beef ribs), the Ruby Dee (catfish), and the Rev. Al Sharpton ($12; fried chicken and waffles). The fried chicken comes a little too dry for us, but the trade-off is a shatter-crisp crust, which seems designed to hold up to an optional smothering of gravy that brings some moistness back to the chicken. Those waffles can come with virtually the entire menu from shrimp and pork chops to sautéed apples and bananas.
Tables are spaced out and the conversational hum is quiet. If Sylvia's styles itself as the neighborhood's queen of soul food, Amy Ruth's is the low maintenance stepsister: not as well dressed, but neighborhood royalty all the same.