The 10 Best Restaurants in Harlem
The crown jewel of northern Manhattan, Harlem's creative and socioeconomic identity has undergone -- as all neighborhoods are subject to -- a series of transformations since the renaissance of the 1920s. And while it hasn't experienced enough gentrification in recent years to qualify as the "Williamsburg of the North", there's been a significant uptick in commercial and residential development, including Richie Notar's Lenox Lounge project and Richard Parsons' recently-opened The Cecil, which anchors this list. Even if many of these developments are symptomatic of the sobering fact that Manhattan is charging ever onward toward becoming a rollicking island paradise for the ultra-rich, the neighborhood's vibrant culinary history has remained somewhat of a constant. The businesses may have changed, succumbing to public opinion and the cultural persuasions of the time, but it's hard to imagine that anyone's ever had a difficult time finding a great meal in Harlem, regardless of the day or year. Here are our 10 Best.
flickr/harlem poster boy R.I.P. Lenox Lounge
10. The Cecil, 210 West 118th Street, 212-866-1262
Former Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons opened this "Afro-Asian-American brasserie" in September with a menu from Alexander Smalls, a pioneer of what the chef describes as Southern revival cooking. In addition to traditional West African dishes like yassa, a marinated and roasted poultry dish (here with poussin), and the skewered kebab-like meat called suya, flavors and spices from African-influenced cultures abound. At that dangerous intersection where tradition meets trend, The Cecil succeeds with share plates that feel homey rather than opulent: a wide casserole of rosemary and pepper ham-spiked macaroni and cheese, "Afro / Asian / American Gumbo" brimming with smoked turkey, shrimp, crab, and Chinese chicken sausage. You might take your scat-deprived ears over to Parsons' adjacent jazz club, Minton's, which opened in the old Minton's Playhouse in late October.
9. Cuchifritos, 168 East 116th Street, 212-876-4846
An East Harlem staple for Puerto Rican food, Cuchifritos has been selling its eponymous fried snacks for over 50 years -- maybe it has something to do with the illuminated marquee, which beckons nighttime revelers with its red and gold lights. Piles of fritters, meat stuffed potatoes, plantains, and cassava threaten to tumble out of their warming trays. There are soups, rotisserie chickens, and roast pork and blood sausage by the pound. Most impressive of all may be the jibaro en canoa, a plantain canoe stuffed with a bevy of meat passengers including pork and beef tongue, ear, and stomach.
8. Jin Ramen, 3183 Broadway, 646-559-2862
A traditional ramen-ya that wears its heart on its sleeve, Jin (the kanji character for benevolence) is owned and operated by locals, some of whom have ties to nearby Columbia University. Miso ramen is the casual spot's specialty, and the kitchen puts out lovely pork bone broths (one spicy, one not), but it's the lightest broth that has the most nuance. After hours of simmering, the deceptively light and clear chicken-based shio ramen broth practically vibrates with yuzu-kosho, a Japanese chili pepper and yuzu rind paste. The citrus gives the soup a delightfully floral nose; a perfect partner to thin, springy noodles and tender chashu pork belly. In keeping with the restaurant's ethos, the owners are active in several community charities. From the looks of the nightly crowds, the neighborhood wants to give back.