March 12, 1979 | Vintage Insatiable
Harlem On My Mind


        “Come,” said the Rocky Mountain Sybarite.  “Come with us to Harlem for barbecued spareribs.”

        One of the unfailing joys of New York is discovering and rediscovering its secrets.  A month ago, the Rocky Mountain Sybarite led me to an outcropping of rock overlooking the pond in Central Park with a view of the city so majestic and moving I wept.  And we were standing six blocks from where I’ve lived seventeen years.  I’d follow the R.M. Sybarite to the ends of the earth- to Cleveland, to Hoboken- if he promised great ribs or divine chili or the best rum-raisin ice cream.  But Harlem...”You’re kidding,” I said.  “You’re such a romantic.  You are not Cole Porter.  I am not Helen Lawrenson.  These are not those bad old good old days.”  To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure a duo of aging blond preppies and I would be all that welcome ribbing and chicken-hopping in Harlem.  Not that I’d tried it since Rosa Parks refused to sit down in the back of that bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and the civil-rights struggle began.

        But off we went. For glorious ribs and transcendent candied sweets.  And ultimately...an astonishing breakfast.  But first, how we got there. One cabdriver was hostile. He switched on his off-duty sign as he pulled up to Sylvia’s on Lenox Avenue just north of 126th Street. And he belligerently refused to pick up a distinguished black man who looked like a younger Kentucky Colonel with a slight suntan. A few weeks later, a second driver made the same trip without comment. Twice we drove our own car -- and once found a spot to park directly in front of Sylvia’s. Coming home one evening, we asked the waitress how to get a cab.  She took a dime from her pocket, dropped it into the pay phone.  Minutes later a private car arrived.  Oh dear, I thought...a gypsy cab.  My worst fears realized.  But the driver was cordial as can be, and the fare on his meter was a dime less than the trip uptown.

        If the welcome at Sylvia’s is a sign of the times, the times are ripe for ribbing in Harlem. True, the abandoned building on the corner of 127th Street is leaning. Any moment it might fall. The neighborhood, alas, is shabby and forlorn, perhaps a bit forbidding. But Sylvia’s worn homeyness is welcoming. The counter is ancient. There are battered booths along the wall and eclectic décor. Christ on a slab of wood. Martin Luther King on a plate. An enthusiastic oil painting. Forks lettered “Prop of City of N.Y.” The waitresses are matter-of-fact and efficient...sisterly almost.  They warm as you warm.

         “Sylvia Queen of Soul Food” it says on the menu, and “Food for the Soul.”  Soul means chicken-fried or smothered in gravy, pork chops and baked ham -- a heritage from the South certain to touch Teutonic sensibilities, stir Gallic spirits, and even provoke haimish heartburn.  There are specials everyday- stew and dumplings ($3.10) on Mondays, chicken gibblet (sic, $2.25) on Tuesdays, meatloaf ($2.95) Wednesdays. On Thursdays, turkey wings and dressing ($3.10); Fridays, fried fish ($3) and barbecued ribs ($3.50). Saturdays, ribs again. And the ribs are the why of this exercise. They are moist and sassy. First comes the taste of sweet pork. Then the after-whammy of hot. Sometimes hot...sometimes, hotter. With dinner comes homemade corn bread -- curiously wishy-washy, further evidence “homemade” is not necessarily a benediction -- and two vegetables: rice, possibly, or black-eyed peas, okra and tomato, limas, potato salad.  My favorites are the crisp chopped collard greens and the candied sweet potatoes, a hypoglycemic’s dream of heaven.  Sugary bliss.

        The black-eyed peas are all right, I guess, perhaps a bit watery, and the okra looks like it’s been stewed in Campbell’s vegetable soup. But the Rocky Mountain Sybarite insists this is food that is meant to be mooshed together. And moosh he does -- frosting his black eyed peas in candied sweets, trailing the fork to pick up a soupçon of barbecue sauce.  I get an image of him 30 years ago in a high chair. Beating banana purée with the back of a spoon.  I venture to experiment with a little soul-food mucking-about myself. Oh, dear- it’s good. But I wish Sylvia’s fried chicken weren’t quite so pedestrian. It’s dry and overdone. To advance the cause of cuisinary research, I reluctantly vow to bypass the barbecue one day and order beef short ribs. “Take the stew,” the waitress advises. What a sad little stew- a dozen lumps of gray meat and a few odd bits of potato. And what a surprise- the beef is fork-tender and alive with glorious flavor. But the peach cobbler is a swift backslide into mediocrity: canned fruit sweetly thickened, soggy crust.

        Do come for breakfast: It’s an adventure. It’s a bargain. It’s a lark. The grits are a must -- they are impeccable, smooth and full of that nutty hominy flavor. Two eggs with grits and homemade hot biscuits cost only a dollar. And the biscuits aren’t bad. If only the same could be said for the jam and the margarine. There is also sausage or slab bacon or hash (canned), sardines, hotcakes, and rather pleasant oniony salmon croquettes -- with eggs and grits. $2.50.  Chicken and grits make brunch for $2.25.  My sybaritic friend is suffering a mid-breakfast crisis.  “Shall I get the slab bacon or the pork chop?” he broods.

        “You can always get bacon, so try the pork chop,” the waitress counsels.

        “Grits high and dry,” she sings out.  That means hold the gravy.

        The scrambled eggs are a miracle of informed scrambling -- moist, not a moment overcooked.  The salmon cakes need only salt and pepper. The pork chop is flavorfully breaded but a bit pinched and dry.  Happily, the coffee is a far notch above the usual luncheonette brew.

        Afterward, we stop by the kitchen to convey our compliments to the chef.  Sylvia grins.  “Thank you and come again,” says the waitress as we leave.  You can bet we will.

328 Lenox Avenue between Amsterdam and Broadway.212 996 0660

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