Soul food at its finest // Judge Foodie

For big portions and casual dining, take a detour through the back alley

By Kirsten Thompson

On Wednesday September 11th, 2013


67 Richmond St. E. | 416.368.1920 |

Sitting in a graffiti-covered alley eating fried chicken and waffles may not sound like the pinnacle of dining, but it’s all a matter of interpretation. In the case of Harlem restaurant, the alley is actually more patio than laneway, and the graffiti is more artistic décor than wannabe gangsta tags. As for the food, no interpretation is needed — it’s fried chicken. With waffles. Yum.

Harlem is on Richmond Street East — its sister restaurant, Harlem Underground, has staked a claim on the west end — and features casual dining with a jazz club upstairs. Downstairs is a small dining area, and a patio that flows out into a laneway. Sitting here is like being in New York; I know Toronto is accused of having an inferiority complex with respect to New York, and restaurants that deliberately set out to emulate it usually end up being mawkish reproductions, but Harlem actually feels like it. It is urban, authentic, gritty and wonderous. The staff are chatty and you could be forgiven for feeling like you’ve strolled into a gracious neighbour’s kitchen, one who wants to share and is perhaps concerned that you aren’t eating enough.

Harlem’s food is “soul food,” and reflects the journey of the people and culture who make it. Part African, part Caribbean and part Deep South, the menu features jerk chicken, rice and peas, and blackened catfish. Collard greens are the vegetable of choice.

I order a menu favourite: southern fried chicken and waffles, with a scotch bonnet/coriander/lime sauce ($16.95). The jerk beef meatloaf ($16.95) is another favourite and plate after plate of it goes by while we’re there, but my dining companion is feeling adventurous and orders smoked jerk pork hocks, with coconut rice and peas ($17.95). The cocktail list and beer list are stronger than the wine list, and we both sample cocktails; I stick with a classic cosmo, while she opts for giggle water, a mango/rum concoction. Both are good; neither is fancy.

The fried chicken is surprisingly crispy and light. I was expecting something heavy and greasy but this is about as far away from that as you can get. I sample the sauce tentatively — scotch bonnet peppers aren’t known as Balls of Fire for nothing — but instead of being tongue–scorchingly hot, it is smoky-sweet and spicy, and a perfect pairing with the chicken. The waffles, too, are light and airy, but I’m overwhelmed with food and unable to finish them.

The pork hocks are a new adventure for both of us, and I’m not sure what to expect. They arrive, delivered by a strapping young man who is at least 6’8, 250 pounds, and who clearly grew up eating food (and portions) like this. He nods approvingly at my dining companion’s choice, as though this might finally put some flesh on her bones. And so it might — the plate is piled high with hocks. Fortunately, as we soon discover, hocks are mostly fat and skin and the meat, while succulent and smoky, must be teased out from the rest of it. This is a worthwhile endeavour, however, as it is rich with flavour. I personally would have preferred a little more zip in the jerk seasoning, but that’s a matter of preference. The rice and peas are a good balance for the saucy, rich hocks, but the coconut flavour is lacking.

Dessert is straightforward: a small selection of cheesecake and cake. We split the cheesecake ($6) and the plantains sauteed in a brown sugar caramel sauce ($5). The plantains, a banana-like fruit, are starchy and sweet with sticky sauce and, like everything here, come in an ample portion. The cheesecake is ordinary.

Harlem serves comfort food of the first order. The patio/alley is just plain cool and has the added advantage of being sheltered from the blazing sun. Harlem is a great choice for cocktails and beer after work on those days you’re just not up for the Prada-and-Louboutin crowd. I invited an out-of-town client along because she specifically requested something a little different; not every client would appreciate the uniqueness of the place, however. Harlem is a casual alternative with food that is a refreshing change from the standard, often overwrought, cuisine available in the core.

Judge Foodie’s verdict

Highs: the patio/alley, the people, the out-of-the-ordinary food
Lows: service is family-style casual

Kirsten Thompson is a Toronto-based research lawyer and commercial litigator. Since her call to the bar in 2000, she estimates that her restaurant to courtroom ratio has been approximately 14:1. Thoughts? Comments? Ideas for a review? Email her. Follow Judge Foodie on Twitter: @Judge_Foodie