Why Did The Chicken Cross The Bridge?

A Walk Across the High Bridge and a Pilgrimage to Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken in Harlem

If you Google the best fried chicken in New York City, you are bound to come across Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken in Harlem. It’s on every list. And it’s been on my “to feed at” list for some time.

I decided to take advantage of some cooler temperatures and clearer skies at the end of June to have a little Harlem adventure. I started with a walk across the newly renovated High Bridge.

The newly renovated High Bridge pedestrian walkway across the Harlem River.

The newly renovated High Bridge pedestrian walkway across the Harlem River.

High Bridge
The oldest in the city, the High Bridge was originally called the Aqueduct Bridge because it was completed in 1848 to serve as part of the aqueduct system that brought water into Manhattan. It crosses the Harlem River, connecting the Bronx with upper Manhattan. The bridge has long since been abandoned. But, after a complete restoration, it reopened last month as a pedestrian walkway.

It is an interesting site, though the banks of the Harlem River are laden with highways, train tracks, and industrial sprawl so it’s not nearly as picturesque as I’d hoped. And the sides of the bridge are lined with wire netting, presumably to keep people from jumping or throwing things off it, so there weren’t too may photo opportunities. But it does live up to its name; it’s definitely not a place for those who fear heights.

Looking north from the High Bridge.

Looking north from the High Bridge.

Heights of Harlem
I then walked south through Highbridge Park to try Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken. The journey gave me a chance to see a part of the city I rarely do, from Washington Heights down to Sugar Hill. It was quite pleasant, actually, and even beautiful in some spots. And you know you are in Harlem when you are standing at the corner of Paul Robeson Boulevard and Count Basie Place.

But terms like “Heights” and “Hill” are used for a reason. This is not the relatively flat city we’re used to. And that proved a bit of a challenge as I tried to hone in on Charles Chicken. I was up on the bluff, and the restaurant was down below on Frederick Douglas Boulevard, between 151st and 152nd Streets. According to Google Maps, I should have been able to walk through Jackie Robinson Park, but that’s actually a massive cliff that runs for about half a mile. Fortunately I finally found some stairs that took me down through the park – around 149th Street, I think.

Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken on Frederick Douglas Boulevard in Harlem.

Charles Chicken
The place is small and somewhat cluttered. The counter is stacked so high I wasn’t even sure anyone was back there. But then I heard a reluctant voice from behind it, asking me what I wanted, as if I was there for some other reason than the food.

I asked for four pieces of chicken, letting her select the cuts. They are served in a Styrofoam to-go container – even if you are, like me, eating it there – and passed to you, in exchange for cash, through the narrow opening at the end of the counter. No fancy register or anything. And certainly no eye contact. But at $8 and change for four pieces of chicken and a small lemonade, I couldn’t really complain.

It was really good fried chicken. Not quite great. And certainly not better than places like the Bobwhite Counter in the East Village. But it was really good. And better than the likes of Hill Country and even Blue Ribbon. I was happy I made the journey.

And that lemonade? Normally I’m not a big lemonade drinker, but their choices are either that or iced tea. This was incredible lemonade, though, sweetened to perfection. So sweet, in fact, that I could feel the diabetes taking hold as I sucked it in.

The chicken at Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken in Harlem.

Stairway to Hell
After I cleaned my chicken nearly to the bone, I decided to see if I could find a more northerly route back through Jackie Robinson Park, as my subway stop was up on 155th Street, above the bluff. Frederick Douglas Boulevard actually runs beneath 155th Street, which is elevated as it leaves the bluff, becoming the Macombs Dam Bridge across the Harlem River to the Bronx.

As I passed under the bridge, by a little makeshift auto detailing enterprise a few local entrepreneurs had set up on the sidewalk, I spotted a staircase leading up the northern side of the bridge. It was a long, steep staircase. You’ve heard of Stairway to Heaven? This was more like Stairway to Hell. And the fact that I didn’t drop dead of a heart attack while climbing the thing, especially after eating pan-fried chicken washed down with some liquid diabetes, leaves me wondering if I am indeed immortal.

Parting Thoughts
As I mentioned earlier, this is a lovely little area. But the cliffs and steepness of the surrounding hills make it difficult for an old walker like me. It’s nice to visit, but I’m not sure I could live there.

Which I guess sums up how I feel about Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken. It’s nice, but not nice enough to make it a regular thing. Maybe if I lived nearby as opposed to having to schlep up there. As it is, the fried chicken is so much easier – and tastier – at places like the Bobwhite Counter.

I may give it another visit in the fall, when the leaves have changed. I imagine the views from the High Bridge will be more picturesque. And maybe the chicken at Charles will live up to my lofty expectations. Or at least be served with a little more warmth.

The Bobwhite Counter

BoWhiCou3

I’ve been looking for an opportunity to feed at the Bobwhite Lunch & Supper Counter in New York’s East Village for some time. It’s located over on Avenue C, between 6th and 7th Streets near Zum Schneider, in an off-the-beaten-path area that still retains some of the neighborhood’s grittier past in the face of creeping gentrification.

Let me begin by pointing out that the Bobwhite Counter is not the name of a band (though maybe it should be). However, I should note that they do have great taste in music, which is something you don’t often find in this fine city of ours.

Also, this place isn’t owned by someone named Bob White. A Bobwhite, according to the restaurant’s Web site, is a type of quail that – like many Southern culinary and cultural traditions – has largely disappeared in the face of modernity and expediency (like much of the East Village). It’s an interesting metaphor, if a bit of a stretch. Though the restaurant aims to rekindle some of those traditions, serving Southern-style food that is local, seasonal, and sustainable.

BoWhiCou2Which, of course, is a wonderful thing. But even a quail-hunting conservative will brave the fading reputation of Alphabet City to get a taste of what this place offers.

The fried chicken? It may indeed be the best I’ve ever tasted. I grew up on the Colonel, and KFC’s original recipe – despite all its commercialism – is still hard to beat. The fried chicken at Bobwhite is just as delicious but with a crispy, crackling, flavor-packed skin that doesn’t abandon the meat at first touch. And that meat is juicy, but not greasy. Each piece I had was cooked to perfection.

The fried chicken supper comes with a side salad and a biscuit. That biscuit was the best damn biscuit I’ve ever had the pleasure of stuffing down my gullet.

Normally I’m not a big biscuit guy, because most tend to be so dry and heavy, like compressed styrofoam waiting to expand inside your stomach and consume precious space that could have been filled with more flavorful Southern delicacies. I had even developed a theory that biscuits were served to drive drink sales, which are typically a high-margin item for restaurants.

Not the Bobwhite biscuits. These things were light and perfectly balanced. They could make a French pastry chef renounce his citizenship and get a Confederate Flag tattooed across his professionally waxed chest.

My nephew and I also got the mac cheese side, which was merely OK. Given the earth-shattering quality of the chicken and biscuits, maybe our expectations for the mac were too high.

ABCBco2And since we are people who love food, as opposed to people who love to judge food, we only ordered and ate what we wanted. So you’ll have to explore the rest of the menu for yourself.

The Bobwhite Counter is small. And they do have a traditional counter, along with a few tables, and narrow counters facing the windows looking out on Avenue C. We opted to sit in the window and, between the soundtrack and the parade of pedestrians, it’s a pretty good show.

If you have to wait for a spot (and it’s worth it), I encourage you to linger next door at the ABC Beer Company. It’s similar to Park Slope’s Bierkraft in that they have a fine selection of high-end beers for sale in coolers up front with food and tables in the back. You can browse the selection or head into the back and start your culinary adventure with a pint and some meats, cheeses, and breads. It might make a good post-meal stop as well.

Over The Hill Country Fried Chicken

You may have noticed that my food reviews tend to be favorable. Sure, I panned Di Fara pizza, dunked a few doughnut places, and even snipped Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken. But, for the most part, I’ve been favorable because I’ve sought out – or already enjoyed – the places I’ve written about.

HCFCogoUnfortunately, I cannot be quite as kind to Hill Country Fried Chicken. The kitschy decor is forgivable. But the fried chicken was so, well, less than I had hoped for.

I’d been to Hill Country BBQ, and frankly wasn’t all that impressed. It was like a few venture capitalists went to Fette Sau and – rather than reveling in the glory that is there – decided that they could make mint by trying to replicate it in midtown Manhattan. But the quality – and the care – that makes Fette Sau an ethereal, transcendent barbecue experience simply isn’t there at Hill Country.

I tried Hill Country Fried Chicken because it looked like a place that fried a mean chicken. That whole downhome, 50s southern diner vibe seemed tailored to the classic southern fried chicken.

HCFCNope. Once again, marketers and moneybags delivered an image but fell short on the product. The fried chicken at HCFC was the typical “I’m an overly talented and soon to be very important chef so I want to make my own take on fried chicken” chicken.

Why do people confuse different with good? Charles Manson was unique. Indeed, he was a pioneer. But that doesn’t make him good.

The bird at HCFC was juicy, I’ll give it that. But ridiculously over-spiced. You know that joke…”it tastes like chicken”…well, not really. The seasoning overpowers the chicken. And maybe that’s all part of the plan, to get you to peel the skin off and eat a dripping chicken breast. Does my cardiologist have a stake in this restaurant?

There’s a reason fried chicken is one of the most popular and celebrated American dishes. If you are going to make it, make it good. If you want to make a name for yourself, invent something new – don’t try to co-opt something that is already great, because that ain’t going to work.

If you actually prefer this seasoning-centric take on fried chicken, my recommendation would be to opt for Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken instead of Hill Country Fried Chicken. Not only is the place nicer and cleaner, but the fries will be warmer – and somewhat delicious. HCFC failed on all marks. As for me, I’m still sticking with the Colonel…though I have one more place I want to try.

Blue Ribbon Fried My Chicken

BRFCThe Blue Ribbon family of restaurants has earned a reputation for quality in the modern New York City restaurant scene. And the brothers behind them, Bruce and Eric Bromberg, have been aggressively expanding their dining empire. But I have always felt that they were somehow out of reach for a simple guy like me.

So when I heard they recently opened Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken, a relatively casual place that seemed more suited to my pedestrian sensibilities, I knew this was my entrance into their culinary kingdom. Located on the corner of Second Avenue and First Street in the East Village, it has a very Shake Shack vibe – from the lines and buzzers at the counter to the metal trays and semi-communal seating. Let’s face it…as nice as these new establishments are, they are nothing more than glorified fast food. Or, to be a tad less cynical, they are fast food done right.

The young lady behind the counter was about as pleasant as one can be in this low-wage world. With her hesitant guidance, I opted to order a la carte: a drumstick, thigh, breast and fries along with a Boylan’s root beer. Not a bad haul, for under $20.

BRFC1The chicken was good, albeit a little heavily spiced for my liking. In fact, I got the sense that it was once a very healthy bird. No pockets of fat – or what you hope is fat – hidden beneath the skin. No hard chunks of what you hope is cartilage. Just healthy muscle tissue cooked to an incredibly juicy perfection.

While I am certain that Blue Ribbon’s fried chicken is probably the healthiest I’ve ever eaten, I am afraid I still prefer the Colonel’s. And though the analogy will likely cost me dearly some day, fried chicken is a lot like women. The bird that was raised the best isn’t necessarily the one you will enjoy the most.

My three pieces of chicken proved to be plenty of food – probably more than I needed. The fries were also good, though a bit thin for my preference.

Some with more sophisticated palates (not to mention a fondness for riding the latest trends) might find themselves enamored with Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken. But given all the wonderful eating options in that area, I can’t see myself venturing back there anytime soon.