Eating Options in Midtown Manhattan

A large pie at Roberta's in Urbanspace Vanderbilt.

A large pepperoni pie sans basil at Roberta’s in Urbanspace Vanderbilt.

There are many reasons to hate midtown Manhattan. And I can only think of a handful of reasons to actually love it: MoMA, Carnegie Hall, and the Radio City Music Hall. Plus, it’s a tourist magnet, which keeps all those people away from our beloved neighborhoods.

Fortunately my concert sojourns, as rare as they may be these days, are conducted at off-peak hours. But MoMA has always been a bit of a struggle, because I usually hit that in the morning – during the less-trafficked Member Previews – and then I’m left looking for convenient feeding options in the area.

I used to go to the Burger Joint at the Parker Meridian, but that’s become a tourist attraction itself. They did have a food truck thing happening on East 48th Street for awhile. But there’s really nothing to eat – or at least nowhere you want to eat (the midtown outposts of places like John’s and Shake Shack are simply too heavily touristed) – in all of Midtown.

Fortunately, the success of the wonderful Smorgasburg and Urbanspace food markets has made it’s way into even the banal blocks of Midtown. On the East Side, there’s Urbanspace Vanderbilt, at the corner of Vanderbilt Avenue and East 45th Street. On the West Side, there’s City Kitchen, at the corner of Eighth Avenue and West 44th Street.

Urbanspace Vanderbilt
This little gem makes up for the demise of the food truck experiment. It’s bound to be packed at peak hours, but at least the feeders are more likely to be Midtown office workers than the tourist scum that surely fill the West Side alternative.

I’ve managed to make it in before the lunchtime rush. I had me a big old Roberta’s pizza pie, followed by a Dough doughnut for dessert. Incredible food, and at prices that are quite reasonable by Midtown standards.

City Kitchen
This is a much smaller option, though the fact that it’s located on the second floor and not street level might make it slightly less crowded. The downside, of course, is that its proximity to the fecal magnet that is Times Square will surely make it more of a tourist cesspool than it’s East Side counterpart.

I also stopped in prior to the lunch-hour madness. I had a great burger from a place called Whitman’s, and followed that up with a Dough doughnut as well. Again, great food at reasonable prices for the neighborhood.

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.

Symbiosis?

BIMCDBBQ

This caught my eye on the northwest corner of Eighth Avenue and 23rd Street in Manhattan. One of the city’s big hospitals, Beth Israel Medical Center, has some type of clinic above a Dallas BBQ restaurant, part of a local chain of second-rate grease pits. I like to think there’s an elevator in the back connecting the two establishments, because the Dallas BBQ patrons are destined to be Beth Israel patients, and I don’t think they’re the kind of people who like to take the stairs.

I probably shouldn’t be so quick to poke fun, though. After all, I was on my way to the Doughnut Plant, on 23rd Street between Eighth and Seventh Avenues, to enjoy the healthy spread you see below.

DPlant

Sigmund’s: Beer & Pretzels With A Twist

Sigs4

Beer and pretzels. Few things work as well together. And by pretzels, I don’t mean those cardboard concoctions you purchase in the supermarket snack aisle. I’m talking about the soft, bread-like creations you typically get at a proper beer garden.

And, in a way, Sigmund’s is a beer garden without the garden. They have beer, of course, though a relatively modest selection. And they have pretzels – amazing pretzels. These come in all sorts of varieties, always cooked to perfection, and served fresh and warm. Naturally I opt for the classic, but you can get cheddar, cinnamon raisin, truffle, feta, olive, and more. They also serve burgers and brats, along with what amounts to a modest cafe menu.

Digital CameraSigmund’s Pretzels popped up in all sorts of locations, including the High Line, while they renovated their East Village restaurant on Avenue B, between 2nd and 3rd Streets. But that has since reopened and looks lovely. My only gripe is that now they don’t open until 5:00 PM on weekdays. And while they are open for brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 AM to 3:30 PM, they shutdown again until 5:00 PM. I can only assume that this is part of a strategic move to become more of a bar/restaurant than a pretzel shop where parents used to be able to take their kids on the way home from school. And that kind of sucks.

That aside, it is a great place to stop for a pint and pretzel after 5:00 PM. And they often run a special where you get a free pretzel with every pint, which is pretty sweet.

Madison Square Eats

MadSqEatsIf you’ve ever found yourself near Madison Square in New York City, food probably wasn’t on your mind. Yes, Madison Square Park is home to the original Shake Shack, which has since popped up in more convenient – and more comfortable – locations. And there have been a few fancy restaurants in the area, but those seeking good food at reasonable prices were starved for choices.

In fact, Madison Square is a pocket of Manhattan that I typically try to avoid. The original Madison Square Garden was located in the neighborhood years ago (hence the name). They have cleaned up the square, converting much of it into a manageable pedestrian plaza that may actually be nicer than the park itself. But the only redeeming value of this location is that the famous Flatiron Building is located there, so you at least have something to look at.

I recently had to visit the area due to the incompetence of the greatest hub of malicious stupidity in the tri-state region, Time Warner Cable, whose Manhattan headquarters is located nearby. And hoping to restore my faith in mankind after that bile-boiling Time Warner experience, I crossed through the park to try Hill Country Fried Chicken. Along the way I came across a cluster of tents – food stalls – packed tightly onto the once-vacant sliver of land sandwiched between Broadway and Fifth Avenue beneath 25th Street.

MadSqEats Roberta'sIt seems I had stumbled upon Madison Square Eats, a sort of spawn of Smorgasburg and the food truck craze. Although it’s unfortunately only there on a temporary basis (through Oct. 25th), the folks from Madison Square Park created this mini outdoor food court – albeit the antithesis of everything a food court has come to stand for – to add a little flavor to the neighborhood. And that it does, quite magnificently.

There’s Roberta’s Pizza – yes, that Roberta’s Pizza, from Williamsburg, with hardly a wait. There’s also Delaney Barbecue (I recommend the fried chicken tacos), Calexico, Mexicue, Sunday Gravy, Asia Dog, Red Hook Lobster Pound, and even Momofuku’s Milk Bar. Open from 11:00 AM through 9:00 PM daily, this is more than just a lunch spot. You can grab a beer at several of the stalls, including an offshoot of the Cannibal as well as Mason Jar and Mayhem & Stout. Even Sigmund’s Pretzels has taps. I also discovered some newcomers, such as Mighty Balls and Arancini Brothers. And, just like me, they didn’t forget dessert – with selections that include Nunu Chocolates (with taps, too), Melt Bakery, and my beloved Doughnuttery.

What an amazing find! I have found excuses to head back there once a week since I first stumbled upon it. It’s a pity it ends on Oct. 25th. And, yes, I should have posted this sooner, but I got greedy with the lack of lines at these eateries. Still, you’ve got a week to check it out, so quit your belly-aching and start your belly-filling!