There are plenty of chicken joints around New York, and confronting great chicken can happen when you least expect it. Its hard to give a clear review of food without it becoming a personal experience, especially when it comes to soul food, more specifically FRIED CHEA-KIN et. Pollo frito. Hashtag birds of a feather don’t necessarily flock together. So in my quest to find great fried bird, off the beaten path, I found myself in Harlem.
As we entered Charles’ establishment, I was surprised by the size. With seating for 9, 10 people max, the word buffet in the restaurants description was a bit misinterpreted. That’s on me though. It wasn’t a consideration to check the available seating and quite frankly, as I happened upon this place, taking the food to-go was the option I thought I’d follow. But a warming feeling hit me. Something a bit familiar but one of those things you couldn’t quite put your finger on. Maybe it was the smell of a wood fire wafting through the air outside mixed the frigid wintery cold. Remember now, we are in Harlem, surrounded by turn of the century limestone town homes and large apt buildings. My mind is really churning thinking about how warm that fire must be as snow began to melt on my shoulders, from the warmth of the restaurant we were now standing inside of.
As soon as you walk in, you are confronted by a large display case fulla CHEA-KIN with all the sides and other mains to the immediate right. The interior was a snap shot of a 50’s lunch counter straight out of the deep south of America.
The traditional patterned picnic cloth table coverings. Salt, pepper, Ketchup and hot sauce bottles served as the only items to dress the table. Minimalist, I get it. But before I even get into the food review let me say, the salt & pepper was not needed. Charles’ could afford to be pretentious in that way. In the way you only find want-to-be 5 star Michelin, go fluff yourself commoner, sort of way. But here, in a place where the only pretention has to be your pre hypertensive blood work….Hold up, Im talking too much about not-chicken… moving on.
My wife joined me on this excursion with baby in tow. We ordered up the standard chicken platter, which included two sides. We both ate for $25 dollars total. We were both full at the end. And we both immediately thought, “we would tell a friend”. We had the same order, two pieces of fried chicken with macaroni and cheese and sweet yams. I opted for a breast and thigh, and the wife, all dark meat.
I was immediately transported to my youth. Where I had spent every summer for the better part of 10 years, in North Carolina with my grandparents. This food was literally every family BBQ, every birthday, every major celebration from birth to death. And yes, this is Last Supper Status. Yes this is just like my gramma used to make. Every bit of it, down to the tangy Crystal-Brand-like hot sauce, I dipped the tender chicken into. The Crust, airy and absolutely perfect. Void of excess oil, while being light and flakey. It was deliciously salty and nostalgic. The spices were perfect throughout each bite.
This is old school, season the meat, season the egg, season the flour, cast Iron skillet, lard cooked, paper-towel sopping chicken.
The Macaroni and cheese was on point! It is the way mac n’ cheese is supposed to taste. The macaroni and cheese had long-curved macaroni noodles cooked a minute past al dente. The cheese was evenly proportioned between each noodle filled bite with purposeful precision. Each bite exposed the sharp cheddar to my tongue reminding me of summers past and second-servings which shaped me into the chubby terror I was in my youth. Arguably in my adulthood as well….arguably. There wasn’t a sauce like you get with fancy mac nowadays. And it is not needed. The sweet yams were citrusy in an orange zest sort of way. Natural tasting and light on cinnamon and vanilla, almost to the point you wouldn’t know it was there, if you didn’t know it was there. You just know that what you’re eating taste good.
Overall Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken was like travelling back in time. This is the type of chicken that you use as a precedent for all to chicken to follow. For all chicken past. For all chicken to come in the future. 1) Tender, clean tasting meat. 2) Crispy, crusty, golden fried crust 3) large and juicy pieces that were evenly coated and spiced flawlessly. This is the part where I say it is hard to do this review. There’s something about regional food. It in large it comes from the seasonings/spices used in those places. You cannot get your dish to come out the same. No matter how hard you try. It is always going to be missing something. The flavors told a story. The depth of flavors, the unadulterated honesty in the cooking methods. It all joined together to make for quite tasty eats in the most unexpected way. This is the type of place you reconnect with family members for. Just so you can invite them out to catch up. Then smile over the anticipation of their reaction and resulting conversation of memories from long ago. If I rated on nostaligia alone this would be an easy 10, but I give an overall (8) Clucks when factoring in presentation and all the other things that make you want to come back and eat more CHEA-KIN.
Yitadee, Bang Bang Bang!!!