Deep Fried Bacon

From left to right, local craft beer, roast pork drizzled with garlic, and deep-fried bacon at La Marqueta’s Vendy Plaza in Spanish Harlem on Sundays.

Yup, deep-fried bacon…just like Jesus intended. Lightly breaded bacon, slithered onto a stick, and gently nestled into a golden pool of boiling fat.

That’s just one of the many treats available at La Marqueta, the open-air market in Spanish Harlem. Every Sunday, starting at noon, an eclectic collection of food vendors gathers at Vendy Plaza, at Park Avenue and 116th Street, to offer up all sorts of tasty treats at affordable prices. It’s like Smorgasburg, or any of the New York City’s other weekly food events, but with three distinct differences: no lines, no ridiculous prices, and a live freakin band!

When Pigz Fly calls it chicken-fried bacon, and serves it with a side of gravy, but it’s basically deep-fried bacon on a stick.

I’ve written about this event already, but I’m writing again because I’ve discovered something truly delightful. One of the vendors, When Pigz Fly, has chicken-fried bacon. Those of you familiar with the Southern staple called chicken-fried steak will recognize this dish for what it really is: deep-fried bacon. And for $3, it’s a steal.

Lately I’ve been getting this as an appetizer and again as dessert, while my primary focus has been on the delicious roast pork…drizzled with garlic oil. That’s cheap, too. Something like $5, I think. The same price you’ll pay for a local craft beer, if you can believe it.

The roast pork is prepared Puerto Rican style by Angel Jimenez of La Pirana Lechonera, a South Bronx food truck (checkout the video on him below, from Liza Mosquito de Guia of Food. Curated.). Whatever tender loving care he gives this pig during the slow roasting in the wee hours ends with skilled but sudden slices of the machete, as he serves up perfect portions to salivating swine fiends like me.

And this isn’t some stale knockoff of the now ubiquitous Smorg machine, with the same vendors, long lines, and bleeding hipsters. These are real people, serving up stuff with appliances often on loan from their own personal kitchens. All to the accompaniment of a live band. It’s real. It’s local. And it’s delicious.

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.

There is a Swine in Spanish Harlem

Vendy Plaza at La Marqueta is a weekly food festival in Spanish Harlem.

Vendy Plaza at La Marqueta is a weekly food festival in Spanish Harlem.

Well, I’m sure you can find a rose as well, but I’m talking about La Marqueta here. And specifically Vendy Plaza, a delightfully swine-centric event.

Vendy Plaza is located beneath the elevated tracks along Park Avenue between 115th and 116th Streets.

Vendy Plaza is located beneath the elevated tracks along the Park Avenue median between 115th and 116th Streets.

La Marqueta is a market under the Metro-North elevated rail line along the median of Park Avenue between 111th and 116th Streets in Spanish Harlem. It originated in the 1930s, as an informal gathering place for pushcart vendors – sort of an early Smorgasburg. By the 50s and 60s, it had become a thriving market with five enclosed buildings housing a variety of vendors. But things have been tough in Spanish Harlem, and today only one of those buildings remains functional.

Hope is on the horizon, though. The New York City Economic Development Council is trying to resurrect the market and create a centerpiece for the community. And, in doing so, they may have even found a way to bring tourists to the area as well.

Pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon from Walking Dog BBQ along with a local microbrew.

Pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon from Walking Dog BBQ along with a local microbrew.

Building on the success of El Boarrio at the Urban Garden Center this past fall, this summer they’ve created Vendy Plaza, a Sunday food fest complete with live music. It’s run by the folks behind the Vendy Awards, which recognize the best in the city’s food truck scene.

Every Sunday from now through Sept. 6, visitors can enjoy a variety of artisanal edibles and a rotating selection of New York’s best microbrews (they even set up a wine kiosk last time I was there) to the sound of a local band. It runs from 12-6 PM, though it’s best to arrive early as the best food – and the band – don’t necessarily last until the end.

Unless you already live in Spanish Harlem, your best is to take the 6 train to 116th and Lex and walk over to Park. While El Boarrio was located under the tracks just north of 116th Street, in the Urban Garden Center (which, incidentally, might be a good place to find a rose in Spanish Harlem), Vendy Plaza is an open space under the tracks south of 116th, running down to 115th Street. You can’t miss it. Just follow the music.

Pretty amazing cookies from The Girl in the Little Red Kitchen.

Pretty amazing cookies from The Girl in the Little Red Kitchen.

I’ve been twice already and enjoyed pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon from Walking Dog BBQ as well as some incredible roast pig. I also sampled some jerk goat but the purveyor was very apologetic because he had run out of food, as it was late in the day and this was his first time participating. I’ve also had some incredible cookies from The Girl in the Little Red Kitchen and good beer, too.

There’s certainly nowhere near as many vendors as you’ll find at Smorgasburg or even Madison Square Eats, but Vendy Plaza has been growing each week. And while I’m delighted by the amount of pork options available, as one would expect in Spanish Harlem, there are also vendors serving up fare from Central America and Southeast Asia as well.

As for the band, they are exactly what you’d expect from Spanish Harlem: horns, percussion, questionable outfits, and plenty of chatter amid the chaos between songs. But it really adds to the experience, and is something the other food festivals around the city could learn from.

Pig is the local flavor in Spanish Harlem, and the offerings at Vendy Plaza are delicious.

Pig is prevalent in Spanish Harlem, and the vendors at Vendy Plaza offer up some fine swine.

El Boarrio in El Barrio

October afternoons don’t get much better than this. It started with a brisk walk into East Harlem, which is also known as Spanish Harlem, or El Barrio. Winding along a trail of De La Vega sidewalk art, I arrived at La Marqueta, an outdoor market at 116th Street and Park Avenue. I came for pig.

The owners of the Urban Garden Center are behind what has evolved into Flea Marqueta, following in the foodsteps of Brooklyn Flea’s Smorgasburg. It’s got a long way to go, but, like everything else in Harlem, they are following their own path. In addition to the food, there are plenty of plants and such along with a few tables selling odds and ends.

The swine-a-thon started back on Sept. 15th. And every second Sunday since then, they have been roasting a pig to celebrate El Boar-rio. Festivities began at noon, but I wander in around 1:30 PM. My timing proved perfect, as I had a chance to grab a cup of coffee from a food truck and snack on some fried chicken from the Southern Comfort caterers.

Boarrio4Shortly after 2:00 PM, the pig was ready. And being El Barrio, the pork came at me in flour tortillas. For a mere $10, I got a pulled pork taco, a chorizo taco, corn on the cob, and coleslaw. For an additional $4, I enjoyed a delicious Sugar Hill Golden Ale from the Harlem Brewing Company.

For dessert, I snagged a bunch of Mr. Cory’s Cookies, made with all natural ingredients by a cool little kid. If you do nothing else today, donate a little something to this micro entrepreneur so he can get his cookies closer to your mouth.

All of this was accompanied by a blues duet, Blue Maky, from Bogata, Colombia. The two dudes, one on guitar and the other on bass, added that magical touch. I didn’t feel like I was at a public event. No, it seemed more like a gathering in a neighbor’s backyard. If there’s one thing they know how to do in El Barrio, it is creating a sense of community.

The final El Boarrio will be held on Sunday, Oct. 27th. That’s also the day of the annual East Harlem Festival, which runs from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM.

The Lucky Chops Brass Band Hits Harlem

I have yet to make it up to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, but I did meet them halfway the other night when they hosted an outdoor concert at El Sito Feliz Garden on West 104th Street in Spanish Harlem. It was the band that drew me there: The Lucky Chops Brass Band.

LCBBI had never heard these boys play. And boys they were, in their early 20s. But I have a soft spot for brass bands and, while there is an abundance in places like New Orleans, you don’t seem to get a whole lot of them up here in New York City. And Lucky Chops did not disappoint. In fact, I was beyond surprised by how good, authentic, inventive, and entertaining these musicians were.

First of all, how many brass bands do you know with a baritone sax? They’ve got a kid who can play the shit out of that thing, and manage to dance while doing it. The trombone player seems to be that band’s leader, as well as an extremely likable fellow who offers up the occasional vocal accompaniment. Add to that equally strong sax and trumpet players, a classically understated drummer, and a tuba player that’s even shorter than I am. It’s a magical mix of talent, energy, and passion.

The Lucky Chops Brass Band at El Sito Feliz Garden in Spanish Harlem.

The Lucky Chops Brass Band at El Sito Feliz Garden in Spanish Harlem.

I don’t know if this is the regular line-up, as it’s the only time I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them perform (so far!). But what I did gather is they are a collective from the tri-state area with the core emerging from a Bronx high school – all too recently for my gray-haired head.

Rather than being a bunch of wannabes, this quintet offered its own take on classics like Joe Avery and Let’s Do It Again. They reached heavenly heights with gospel favorites like I’ll Fly Away and This Little Light of Mine. And they pioneered brilliant interpretations of R&B hits like I Want You Back and My Girl. Mix in some blues, a little ska, and a touch of klezmer and you’ve got the winning repertoire of the Luck Chops Brass Band.

The Lucky Chops Brass Band at El Sito Feliz Garden in Spanish Harlem.

The Lucky Chops Brass Band at El Sito Feliz Garden in Spanish Harlem.

Second only to the sounds they make is the performance they give. Traditional New Orleans brass bands are known for adding a little theater to their stage performance, and these kids certainly don’t lose sight of that – as many northern imitators do. Not only do they deliver musically, but they also put on a lively show. Even the deaf will be entertained!

The gig I saw was the last of the National Jazz Museum’s summer garden concert series for the 2013 season (and the light was fading, so please forgive the quality of these photos and videos). But you can catch the boys at Battery Harris in Williamsburg, where they appear to be regulars, or visit the band’s Web site for upcoming shows. I know I’ll find my way over there this fall to get another fix, and thank my lucky stars for discovering the Lucky Chops Brass Band!