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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.