Melba’s Chicken and Waffles and Book Culture in Harlem

One of the best things about living in New York is its neighborhoods, each of them unique and most of them boasting restaurants that allow you to travel the world. To anyone who hasn’t been to New York, it may seem like a big city, but, for those of us who call it home, it’s actually kind of a bunch of small cities in five boroughs: Manhattan (Times Square), Brooklyn (hipsters), Queens (Mets), and Staten Island (ferry).

We had to take a trip to Book Culture and decided to have a bite to eat before venturing into its intellectual maze. It is located in the borough of Manhattan, in the neighborhood of Harlem. The train wasn’t too crowded—with people anyway.

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No idea what was going on there…. Just another day on the C train. We weren’t the only ones snapping pictures, so you might see it elsewhere. Some passengers were amused, some were angered and commented that it was “ridiculous!” while still others did what most New Yorkers do when confronted with a spectacle: ignored it, or at least pretended to do so. I had the slightly immature urge to jump into the middle of them but didn’t have enough cash to cover any that I might break.

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A short walk from 116th Street stop on the C train is Melba’s Restaurant, founded by Melba Wilson in 2005, who worked in the kitchen at the famous Sylvia’s Restaurant, one of my favorite places in all of New York to eat. We first learned of Melba’s on an episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay, featuring chicken and waffles. Melba won, of course. Fried chicken is an art form.

It was kind of a no-brainer. What’s not to love about Chicken and Waffles? It was just a matter of having a moment to get there. The moment finally came, and Melba’s didn’t disappoint. We sat at the reasonably stocked bar (no tables for two available.) It definitely had the feel of small neighborhood place, but with sophistication and great music. The staff was friendly and attentive. Perhaps most importantly, it was obvious that they love the food, which was served promptly and with a look of what I even might call envy.

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And it was immediately apparent why Melba won. The piping hot fried chicken was crispy and moist, with a good blend of spices, and the waffles were fluffy and light, served with warm maple syrup and a small dollop of strawberry icing. It was the perfect blend of salty and sweet.

We also had the Wine Braised Short Ribs of Beef, which pretty much melted in your mouth. Put the knife down—a fork will do just fine. It comes with two sides, and we chose collard greens and mac and cheese. I’m a “purist” when it comes to collards, meaning I expect pork. Melba’s makes theirs with smoked turkey, which turned out to be delicious. The mac and cheese was really good but not what I expected.

The portions were large, though not ridiculously so. Alas, however, dessert, though certainly made more tempting by our bartender, was an impossibility. There was simply no space. Next time, perhaps. I would definitely not have a problem with a return trip to Melba’s Restaurant. Not only did we not have room for dessert, there was no room for the country yams or the black eyed peas. Imagine!

It was a beautiful night, and the few blocks that we had to walk to Book Culture (technically in Morningside Heights) were pleasant. If you’ve never been to Book Culture, you should go, if for no other reason than it’s a bookstore. It’s the kind of store, small but filled with treasures, where you find surprises around that corner on a shelf or along the stairs. (Remember those?)

If you visit New York City, go to Harlem. It’s important not only to New York’s history, but to American history. It is, like of many small cities contained in New York, small but filled with treasures.

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