If you’ve done any kind of soul food searching in the borough of Manhattan, you know – or at least have been ordered to accept – that the story of New York City’s best fried chicken begins with Charles Gabriel.
I became one of the many who give this kind of order on December 10, 2006. I had just flown to New York City after six months of living abroad, my stomach reduced to a lonely, withering sack without the comforts of Southern food, and I was determined to make my return to the States worthy of the phrase, “all you can eat.” The lunch buffet at what was then Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen responded in overwhelming grace, affirming my American roots with plate after plate of untouchable pan-fried chicken, plus sweet tea on the house.
I found myself at Charles’ front door once more on Thanksgiving evening, 2007, procuring twenty-four pieces of freshly fried chicken for my hungry, turkey-less cohort back on Brooklyn. After Amit had shut the doors to his car, it took all of six seconds before we fulfilled the golden rule of fried chicken, each choosing a single piece to wolf down in silence before heading back down FDR with half-greased fingers.
Upon my move to New York in late 2008, the news that Charles’ Southern Kitchen had closed – the result of a teenage joyride that ended with an auto lodged in his storefront and all the bureaucratic struggles that would follow – hit me like a burning flag at a Texas rodeo. I couldn’t believe that a place so vital to the spirit of good food could simply be folded into a more prestigious gig in the Bloomingdale district.
Consequently, the news that Charles had re-opened his Harlem doors the following year was a gift from God: On the terms of southern fried chicken, I had permission to believe once more in the perfect meal.
And my reservations about the master moving that meal to a more brunchified neighborhood? As the Lee Brothers reveal in their recent narration of the life and times of the man, Charles Gabriel has known for quite some time that his chicken’s got legs. Having started his business on his patch of sidewalk and converted his stand into the neighborhood soul food truck in the mid-’90s, Charles owns the kind of ambition that is born of a brimming work ethic.
That’s why, once he had overcome the insurance company’s delays and gotten his financial cards back in order, Charles reclaimed his roost on Frederick Douglass and W. 151st, where he continues to man the kitchen four days a week. Averaging four of sleep each night, he makes it into Charles’ Country Pan-Fried Chicken at around 11:00 a.m., begins service around noon, makes a midday trip downtown to procure supplies, and works out of his Harlem base until closing time, when he gives away leftover food to the less fortunate. By midnight, even on when his staff is serving after hours, Charles is preparing food for the next day’s service. He usually makes it to bed by sunrise.
While the joint’s name change to “Country” was meant as a prominent nod to Charles’ roots in North Carolina, it was hardly necessary, as any soul food worth its genre can soften the hardest concrete corner of the big city into a bite-sized moments of southern care.
Charles’ pan-fried chicken, by far the most time-slowing and addictive item on the menu, is exemplary in this role. As pointed out by almost every single writer who admires the craft, the labor and attention invested in pan-frying chicken results in a feather-light crunch and easy-going body capable of rewriting one’s gut response to the thought of a buffet option. Thoughtfully dry-cured, rubbed and seasoned, Charles’ chicken is moist and flavorful to the bone. Each bite is a perfect bite, every piece so agreeable that I can’t help but eat at least five or six every time I stop by for lunch. As if the superb quality of this chicken weren’t satisfying enough, Charles separates his fried birds by part, allowing his diners to eat as many of their favorite pieces as they want.
The side dishes at Charles’ Country-Pan Fried Chicken are less exciting; then again, what could possibly be more of a thrill than an unlimited supply of the city’s best fried chicken wings? Still, though southern standards like collard greens, black-eyed peas and candied yams all have an underwhelming, just-made-at-home quality to them, their subtlety is a spot-on match to the simplicity of the main event. Okra and tomatoes, which tends to be overseasoned by other cooks, is a mild, sweet-and-savory standout and the only side that maintains residence on my plate.
The best part of eating at Charles’ – aside from the $10.99 lunch buffet price tag – is the fact that every meal I’ve had there is local to the last, thanks in no small part to the constant presence of the man himself, checkered chef’s pants and all. This experience receives a restaurant-casual makeover at Rack and Soul, where Charles spends Saturdays and Sundays checking on his cooks and ensuring that the quality of his chicken stands up to its Upper West Side price tag. I’ve tasted inconsistent results on repeat visits, but never a bird I didn’t finish; though dining here isn’t nearly as enriching as it is at Charles’ Harlem parlour, it’s satisfying all the same.
Rounding out Charles’ seven-day working week is his latest expansion: “Fried Chicken Friday” at Aretsky’s Patroon. Patroon, a standard American white-tablecloth restaurant, does its best to ransack everything that makes Charles’ fried chicken special. Rather than face the cook, I place my order with a stuffy waiter who might have made a cameo on a ’90s sitcom. Instead of receiving lemonade and sweet tea on the house, I’m offered sparkling water, which is later charged to my bill with the same price tag as a midtown beer. Locals from Harlem and Manhattan Valley are replaced by the realization that WASPs do exist. Hoping the waiter doesn’t indulge me in his over-the-top French accent when he returns with the food, I feel a long way from home.
The $25 reconstructed buffet plate that arrives at my table brings me right back. The chicken is as hot, fresh and tasty as ever. The sides taste as if they came straight from the kitchen in Harlem. I may never return to Aretsky’s Patroon, but I can rest easy knowing that Charles has succeeded – for at least one night – in showing what he considers downtown New York the true flavor of southern fried chicken.
As if to steal the last laugh, the waiter delivers chunks of Charles’ banana cream pudding parfait that have been transmuted into an unrecognizable dessert. The sweet, rich and creamy parfait, its polka-dot layer of round vanilla wafers peeking out from under plastic wrap, is one of my favorite parts of the buffet bar in Harlem. Here at Patroon, it’s a square reminder of misplaced taste, the lengths to which people will go to trade in a perfect meal for a nice one.
When asked where he’ll take his fried chicken locomotive next, Charles mentions that he’s been courted by restaurateurs of all shades. Shrugging off any pretense of becoming Harlem’s own David Chang, he brings the topic of future expansion back to what he’s doing now – literally, right now, as he reminds me that he has to head to market for fresh ingredients. With fourteen hours left in his day, he drops some silverware behind the register and walks out. Some day, his legacy will be stretched thin, but as long as Charles Gabriel walks through these doors, the story of New York’s best fried chicken won’t end with the stale aftertaste of a midtown lobby.
|Charles’ Southern Pan-Fried Chicken
839-2841 Frederick Douglass Blvd
New York, NY 10039
|Rack and Soul
258 W. 109th St.
New York, NY 10025
160 E. 46th St.
New York, NY 10017