Across 125th Street

7 Dec

For years I would drive past the M&G Diner on 125th Street and wonder at the restaurant’s flamboyant signs “Soul Food” and “Southern Fried Chicken.” The signage looked authentically from the 1960’s and 70’s and I was curious if the food was, as another one of its signs said, “Old Fashion’, But Good!” Yet I continued to just “drive by;” never getting out of the car to check it out. When it was my turn to pick our destination in September of 2003, the time had finally come. Below is our M&G Diner experience.

M&G Diner: Circa 1974

M&G Diner
R.I.P

If it weren’t for the small poster tacked onto the entrance to the 125th St. subway station announcing an upcoming rally for “Reparations: It’s Time They Pay,” I would have thought I had just stepped onto the set of a 1970’s blaxploitation movie. There was the West African Hair Groomers just a few doors down from Showman’s Café, est. 1942 and on the corner of 125th and Morningside, the big neon “soul food” sign at the M&G Diner. Gerry and Eugene were waiting outside when I arrived. Eugene had arrived first and was marveling at the contrasts found on 125th street where in one store an NBA jacket sold for almost $800 while in another pants were selling for $1 each.

Peering into the spectacularly unadorned diner, I noticed only a few tables; this Harlem legend which I had never experienced was much smaller than I had thought. I suggested we take one of the tables before they disappeared. Rick had already bowed out of this trip due to an attack of either too much drink the night before, some tainted food, or the combination of both. That made five of us—the capacity for one of the tables at the M &G.

“What they do!…they smile in your face…”

“Back Stabbers,” by the O ‘Jays was playing when we entered. We were off to an excellent start.

It had been almost two months since our last venture and judging by Zio’s trim appearance a few minutes later, the layoff had been very good for his waistline. But we were now in a self proclaimed soul food restaurant and we couldn’t worry about our waistlines.  While we waited for Charlie, we perused the succinct menu: fried chicken (leg or breast), short ribs of beef, meat loaf, shell steak, chopped steak, chitterlings, smothered pork chops, ham hocks, fish and grits. With each dinner you were to choose two sides including soul food standards like lima beans, green beans, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, black eyed peas, and yams. Even though the options were not foreign to us, deciding what to order, as it always does, requires deep clear thinking. While looking at the menu, Eugene mentioned jokingly about ordering eggs and despite the music playing loudly from the jukebox, the lone woman behind the counter heard him and barked: “No breakfast served now!” The hand-written signs on the walls announced that the M&G was open 24 hours and that breakfast was served daily but only between 12:00 am until 1:00 pm. You obviously don’t joke about defying the one written rule of the M&G Diner.

We had given Charlie a half hour grace period and he still hadn’t arrived; it was time to begin the ordering process. The woman came from behind the counter equipped with pad in hand. She was running the show; handling all the tables, the counter service and the outgoing orders with brisk, yet good natured efficiency. Now she had moved to our table; she wanted decisive answers—waffling would not be tolerated. After each of us recited our dinner orders, she barked out “Sides?” We were ready for her with our responses and then: “Dinner roll or corn muffin?” Despite her formidable presence and our novice status at the M&G, we handled the drill reasonably well. Zio and Eugene went for the fried chicken, Gerry the smothered pork chops.

“Short ribs,” I said to her when it was my turn to order, but then the pressure got to me and my response of macaroni and cheese and collard greens came out with a slight stammer. I could tell she sensed weakness in me so, in response to the bread query, I rallied with a strong, definitive “corn muffin.”

Charlie walked in soon after we ordered with the lame excuse of being stuck in the office as an alibi for his tardiness. There was no way we were going to risk the wrath of the M&G Queen by summoning her to our table again, so we sent Charlie to the counter to put in his own order.

 

 

With nothing to munch on and the beverage choices being soda or overly sweet lemonade, all we could do while waiting for our food was listen to the Main Ingredient remind us that “Everybody Plays the Fool.” And then the M&G Queen arrived with our orders, carrying a few plates at a time without, as far as I could tell, even breaking a sweat.

The chicken had been proclaimed in our research as a highlight, and judging from what I saw and sampled, that assessment was accurate; tender and lightly pan-fried the way fried chicken was meant to be prepared as opposed to deep fried in a heavy batter. My short ribs were perfectly cooked, the meat separating cleanly from the fat and bones; the brown sauce, however, a bit thick and bland for my taste. The corn muffins were warm and not overly sweet and Gerry’s pork chops, tender and seasoned perfectly.

Despite the gargantuan portions, almost all of us were willing to sample the cakes and pies for dessert. I was the lone dissenter instead choosing an extra fork in which to pick at all the others. I tried a bit of Zio’s coconut cake, a bit more of Gerry’s sweet potato pie and almost all of Charlie’s chocolate cake and immediately regretted my decision in not ordering a slice of cake for myself. So impressed were we by the desserts, we asked if they were made at the diner. The M&G Queen said no and held out for a minute in revealing where they were from. Without too much coaxing, she gave in and, finally, offering us a smile as well, said they came from the H&H Bakery in Brooklyn as if that meant anything to any of us.

Our tab came in well under the $20 limit and as we were leaving, I heard O.V. Wright on the jukebox moaning something about “A Nickel and a Nail.”  We went our separate ways at 125th St, and as I walked toward the subway,  I noticed that the velvet rope was already out in front of Showman’s Café.

 

 

The M&G closed in 2008. A new condo tower had been proposed to be built on the corner where it was located. That project fell through; a casualty of the recession, but the damage was done. M&G was gone and I guess it gave an already struggling business an early out. It’s not easy for something “old fashion’ But Good” to compete with “DD,” “BK,’ “MickeyDs” and the other fast food joints that are now, unfortunately a permanent part of the 125th Street landscape.

5 Responses to “Across 125th Street”

  1. James Lax December 8, 2010 at 6:41 pm #

    Another fantastic read… I love the way you intertwine the music of the moment with dining experience… And the
    reference to the velvet rope outside Showmans Cafe was the icing on the cake… Observations of a city dweller in the big apple… I hope someone ordered grits with their meal… I live off the stuff ! Come to Florida for some real grits and Southern Fried Chicken !

  2. BSS December 8, 2010 at 7:07 pm #

    James, Is Florida still considered the South? Does Disney make the chicken?

  3. JamesandKarla Murray December 3, 2015 at 7:39 pm #

    Photo by James and Karla Murray from there book STORE FRONT: The Disappearing Face of New York.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Adventures in Chow City: The First Decade « Fried Neck Bones…and some home fries - March 27, 2012

    […] Pan fried chicken and old school soul   Across 125th Street […]

  2. Name That Place | Fried Neck Bones...and some home fries - April 19, 2013

    […] in Harlem, and a place I wrote about in these pages early on, the late, great M&G Diner (see  Across 125th Street). Those words are “Old Fashion’ But Good!” and they apply to place in question.  Now […]

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