Sylvia’s (New York, NY)

I’ve always had a love of both Southern cooking and the related “Soul Food”, the variant that sprang out of the 1960s as folks in various Northern cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York that had moved north in the Great Migration started to celebrate their Southern cultural tradition in music (Soul Music) and food (Soul Food). I’ve had a lot of periodic visits to Harlem over the decades, and one only has to take a quick look around Harlem to see that it has changed a lot; the demographics of 2018 are distinctly different than those of the Great Migration 1960s, and the socioeconomics different as well (the brand new Whole Foods and rising rent are testaments to that), and unfortunately, many of the institutions that sprang up in the 1960s are starting to disappear, but one of the cornerstones of “Soul Food” in Harlem is still around: Sylvia’s.

Sylvia’s was opened by Sylvia Woods in 1962, after she had been working for several years as a waitress at a lunch counter. Offered the opportunity to buy the lunch counter, she did so, converting the place into Sylvia’s, and converting the menu into a Southern cooking and Soul Food institution. Originally just a diner-like counter in a single store front (which is still the main entrance), over the decades Sylvia’s has expanded and now takes up a significant part of the block (indeed, in 2014, the block of 126th St by Sylvia’s was given the honorary name of Sylvia P. Wood Lane), between the service counter, two large dining rooms, and a function room. The place remains a cornerstone of the Harlem dining scene, the place is always packed and busy, and, until shortly before her death in 2012, most diners were welcomed by Sylvia herself (the place is now managed by her kids). And, until this visit, while I was familiar with several of their recipes, I had never actually been there. So when the opportunity arose, it was finally time to visit.

Indeed, arriving on a Saturday evening at 6pm, the place was indeed thoroughly packed: all the dining rooms and counter filled, and standing room only in the waiting area. But after a relatively short wait, enough tables turned for us to get a seat in one of the dining rooms. The menu at Sylvia’s really does cover a fair bit of territory: there are the classics of fried chicken, smothered chicken, ribs, and catfish, but they’ve also got shrimp and grits, chitterlings, and on some nights stewed turkey legs, oxtails, or the famous combination of chicken and waffles. As we figured out exactly what we wanted, we got a basket of cornbread. Too often, cornbread disappoints me, being leaden, overly sweetened bricks of dense cornmeal, but the cornbread here was quite good: a nice slightly soft interior with a good crumb, a good corn flavor, not too much sugar, and a nice crusty top and bottom to give it just a bit of crunch. I’m a bit baffled by how they serve it up with fairly generic margarine spread, however; seems like if there’s ever a place where a good slab of real, salty butter would add something, it’s with cornbread.

I eventually settled on the smothered chicken, which is basically fried chicken drenched in a rich onion gravy. Done well, there’s a real art to it, the underlying chicken needs to have a good, solid, and crispy crust on it, and the onion gravy needs to be a rich chicken-and-onion thick gravy, and then, most importantly, the chicken and sauce need to finish cooking together, so that the chicken is starting to break down a bit in the gravy. Ideally, the result should be tender chicken, where each forkful holds a bit of chicken, a bit of breading, and a bit of sauce, without you having to fight with it or make a mess. And I’ll say, Sylvia’s delivered, since this is one of the best smothered chickens I’ve had in a while. Add in sides of a pleasant-but-slightly-salty tomato and okra gumbo and and very nicely done cowpeas and rice, and I was quite happy with this meal.

Carol opted for the classic fried chicken, and while I don’t think it was quite as good as the smothered variation, it was a well-executed fried chicken: soft, flavorful, and moist chicken with a crispy, slightly spicy breading. Add in a very nicely done baked mac and cheese with just enough tooth to it to show it was properly oven-baked, and this made a nice meal as well.

Overall, I was pleased with Sylvia’s. I’m pretty sure there are actually some better places still serving up classic Soul Food in Harlem, and Sylvia’s has become as a much a tourist destination as restaurant in an ever-changing neighborhood, but I rather enjoyed my food, and found the fried chicken good and the smothered chicken excellent. While I think it’s a bit expensive for what you get, I wouldn’t be disappointed to come back, especially if they can consistently do smothered chicken that well.

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