One thing we were curious to try was the supposed nirvana of all soul food dishes – chicken and waffles. That’s fried chicken and huge spongy waffles served TOGETHER with maple syrup poured all over the two(!) In search of this artery clogging grease fest we headed ‘across 110th street’ (love that song!) to Harlem, the heart of Manhattan’s African-American community and home to several well-known soul food restaurants. Top of my list was Amy Ruth’s, but after meeting up with some Upper West Side dwelling friends who are in the Harlem know, we were persuaded to try Melba’s instead – a classy little restaurant representing the new, more upmarket style pervading Harlem.
Soul food is something I’ve only ever read about or seen on tv – it’s not something that registers on the Australian or Asian food radar, given its American-centric nature.
To the uninitiated, soul food can best be described as fare rooted in African-American traditions, emanating from America’s south with African influences. Vegetables like collard greens feature, as do grits (like polenta), crab cakes, catfish, fried chicken and down-home comfort type foods like mashed potato and onion rings.
Chicken and waffles at Melba’s, served with maple syrup and strawberry butter
Happy to go with sleek and chic over down and dirty diner, we caught the subway to Melba’s – with a walk through Harlem’s streets at night not nearly as adventurous or dangerous as I was perversely hoping!
Melba’s had the look of a classy brasserie or bistro, with dim lighting, a cosy, buzzing atmosphere and a jazz bar vibe, given it was open mic night when we attended. Of the four of us, two opted for the famous chicken and waffles, which was accompanied by not only maple syrup but strawberry flavoured butter(!!!). Two of us ordered a plate of sides to sample the mash, onion rings, collard greens and more, and we also tried the catfish strips and crabcakes – both delicious. So how were the chicken and waffles? Surprisingly – they weren’t as disgusting as they sound! The maple syrup somehow tied the two main ingredients together in a warm, deep fried, comforting, sweet and savoury, complimentary kind of way! I’m not sure I’d place chicken and waffles in the ‘dishes I regularly like to eat’ category (not having a death by obesity wish) but I’m glad we expanded our eating horizons with a side trip into soul food territory – and what better place to do it than Harlem!