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A Taste of Soul Sticking Food on Seventh Avenue

7 May

Accra

We had just begun to stare at the wide array of exotic dishes offered behind the plexi-glass enclosed steam table when he was on us. He wore dark shades and a dark sport jacket. He shoved menus into our hands while proclaiming Accra, the African restaurant Gerry and I had wandered into, as something unlike any other African restaurant. Here, he said, you could get Ghanaian,  Senegalese, Nigerian, all kinds of African food.

“We even have soul food if you want it,” he said.

The assortment was staggering and we had no idea which dishes matched the very vast menu above the steam table. Gerry pointed to a dark brown stew where the only identifiable food were hard boiled eggs.

Brown stew

Brown stew

“You want a taste? Give him a taste,” the man in the dark shades said to one of the African women behind the counter. She looked at him quizzically, but no taste was forthcoming.

I eyed a rich, forest green vegetable stew. “That’s spinach with meat. Give him a taste,” he said again to the confused woman.

“We have beef, lamb, chicken, fish. No pork here,” he added. I had noticed the “No Pork on my Fork,” sign on the window in front. It was a remnant from the previous establishment: Mookie’s which I included in a post I wrote on this site called A Little Love for the Pig (Please).

Still no love for the pig.

Still no love for the pig.

“We have peanut soup, jollof rice, fufu, dibi with acheke, wakey with beef…” He said, pointing to the trays as we moved down the assembly line of food. “Give them a taste,” he said again, this time to whomever might listen.

But no taste was offered.

There were trays of fish. Some just the heads. Others smaller, fried whole.

“Tilapia,” he said, pointing to the fish heads. “And whiting,” indicating the smaller, fried fish.

Spinach with meat...and tilapia heads.

Spinach with meat…and tilapia heads.

“Black eyed pea fritters,” he said, indicating a mound of fried fritters. “Give them a taste.”

Finally, Gerry and I were handed pieces of the black eyed pea fritters off of small forks. Besides a slight spice tang, they were bland and could use a sauce or condiment as an accompaniment.

Black Eyed Pea Fritters

Black Eyed Pea Fritters

Next to the fritters was a tray that one of the women behind the counter was filling with a pieces of bronzed meat that had just come out of the deep fryer.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Turkey butt,” she said.

“What?” I looked closer. They were small, rounded, bony orbs, fried to a reddish brown. I wasn’t sure if I heard correctly.

“Turkey butt,” she repeated.

I looked for help from the man in the dark shades, but he had disappeared. We were now on our own at Accra.

Turkey butt

Turkey butt

Gerry decided on the dark stew of meats he first noticed along with rice, plantains and the spinach. I tried the sticky okra, jollof rice (a brownish yellow rice with bits of meat), lamb chops and also the spinach.

“Let me cut the chops,” the woman assembling my plate said. She cut them with kitchen shears into smaller pieces.

Lamb chops, spinach, okra, and jollof rice.

Lamb chops, spinach, okra, and jollof rice.

I noticed Gerry had a plastic bottle of homemade ginger beer on his tray.

“I’ll take a ginger beer too,” I said, but when I was handed the plastic bottle what was inside had a reddish tinge to it; a different hue than Gerry’s ginger-colored ginger beer.

“That’s ginger beer?” I asked.

The woman nodded but then a man came out from the kitchen. “Don’t give him that one,” the man said. “That’s the very spicy ginger beer.”

He was assuming that I couldn’t take the heat. That I wasn’t up to the challenge; that my American Caucasian constitution made me physically incapable. I didn’t resent the implication, but neither was I willing to accept it.

“Oh no, I’ll have this one,” I insisted stubbornly.

I took the food and the ginger beer back to a table where Gerry had already planted himself. Before even starting on the mound of food on my plate, I had to sample the ginger beer. I took a small sip. It was as strong as I’ve ever had; almost like drinking a wasabi smoothie. And after starting in on the very spicy okra and spinach dishes, the ginger beer was offering no respite. I had to cave and order a glass of water to put out the fire.

Once the water arrived, I was able to taste the food. Everything was flavorful and lovingly prepared. Even the multiple photos of Congressman Charles Rangel wining and dining with African dignitaries could not diminish my appetite.

Congressman Rangel trying the jollof rice.

Congressman Rangel sampling jollof rice.

Gerry looked around the dining room. “We are the only ones using forks,” he said.

I looked up from my plate to see the few occupied tables with men who, using their hands, were scooping their food into their mouth with pieces of pale fufu, familiar from our trip to Jamaica, Queens and the memorable Maima’s (The Bistro that Serves Fufu and Four Fingers), as their only eating utensil.

Once our plates were clean, I wondered what there might be for dessert. I noticed Accra carried donuts—the same donuts found at a thousand delis and bodegas across the city.

“Not for me,” Gerry said after I suggested it.

Paris Blues then,” I said, indicating the bar two blocks away where the Les Goodson band would be performing soon.

“Now you’re talking,” Gerry said.

Paris Blues 045

As Gerry and I exited the restaurant, moving past the long steam table, the women behind it and the men working in and around the dining room wanted our feedback. We heaped as much praise as we could before we got out of the door and even then, a man wearing an “Accra” baseball cap poked his head out. “Did you enjoy your food?” he asked

We reiterated our praise and said we would be back soon.

“Alright then,” He said with a smile and went back into the restaurant.

Accra Restaurant
2065 Seventh Avenue
Harlem

 

Neck Bones’ Fat Tuesday Red Beans and Rice

12 Feb

Red Beans

Memorable food moments in film have been well documented. One of my favorites occurs in the 1978 masterpiece from filmmaker Les Blank, Always for Pleasure, the documentary about Mardi Gras traditions in New Orleans. In the film there is a particularly memorable scene, at least to me, where New Orleans’ native, singer, Irma Thomas recites her recipe on how she makes her red beans and rice. “First you need a large pot…at least five quarts…”

irma thomas

I’ve seen the film numerous times, but only on video and that scene has always made my mouth water. Now if I ever had the pleasure of viewing Always for Pleasure at a screening where the filmmaker was in attendance and employed his gimmicky, yet sadistically ingenious technique of “Smellaround;” the addition of the actual aroma from a big pot of red beans and rice being cooked within the theater itself, the gurgling from my stomach would probably drown out the dialogue from the screen.

Instead, the film motivated me to make red beans and rice according to Irma Thomas’s recipe. I was able to find a copy of the recipe in a 1986 book called Totally Hot! The Ultimate Hot Pepper Cookbook, by Michael Goodwin, Charles Perry, and Naomi Wise (Dolphin Doubleday). The recipe, adapted by Les Blank from Irma Thomas’ recipe is much more complicated than what she recited in the film. Hers was brief and simple. I made Les Blank’s recipe from the book. The result, however, for whatever reason, was a slight disappointment.

Since then I’ve tweaked the recipe borrowing much from it, including an enormous amount of garlic. Irma Thomas suggested using a half head.  Blank, who made another masterpiece in 1980, Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, centered around the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, so we know where he stands on the benefits of the “stinking rose,” calls for a full head.

Garlic

For what I made, I used probably three quarters of a head of garlic, In Blank’s recipe, a smoked ham hock is called for and that is what I used when I made his recipe. Thomas, in the movie suggests  using “seasoning meat of your choice.” My choice for this batch of red beans was Andouille sausage. Also instead of using a big pot on the stove, I switched to a crock pot hoping the consistent, low temperature would produce better results. Beyond those changes, I’ve left much of the other red beans and rice basics intact.

So here, for your Fat Tuesday pleasure is the Neck Bones rendition of Irma Thomas’s version combined with Les Blank’s Always for Pleasure red beans and rice.

Ingredients:

2 cups of dried red beans (one pound bag)

6 cups of water

1 lb of Andouille sausage (any other garlicky smoked sausage will work too), sliced.

2 medium onions (about 2 cups worth) chopped

1 green bell pepper, chopped

2 ribs of celery, chopped

6 tablespoons of minced garlic (or just mince a head—depending on the size of the head)

1 tablespoon of creole seasoning*

½  teaspoon salt

Cooked white rice

Green onions, a.k.a  scallions for garnish

*If you don’t have creole seasoning, you can add ½ tablespoon each of black pepper and cayenne pepper or more cayenne than black, depending on your spice preference.

Beans soaked overnight

Beans soaked overnight

If you are a reader of Fried Neck Bones…and Some Home Fries you know I prefer the easy to the difficult when it comes to my own cooking. Following that philosophy, I rarely use dried beans going the lazy route with canned beans as a substitute. For this recipe, however, I think dried beans are best because of the very long cooking time involved. So soak the beans in water at room temperature overnight and then pour off whatever water remains and rinse them again in cold water.

Put the beans in a crock pot or slow cooker and cover with the water.

Quickly sauté the sausage to cook off a bit of the fat. You don’t need to do this; you can just throw in the sausage and the excess fat will just add more flavor of the beans, But if you want to limit your fat intake somewhat, either sauté it and drain with a slotted spoon, or boil it briefly first and then add to the crock pot.

Andouille sausage

Andouille sausage

Cook the onions, celery, and bell pepper for about three minutes in the grease from the sausage and then, again with a slotted spoon, add it all to the crock pot.

Toss in the minced garlic and the Creole seasoning.

Garlic going in.

Garlic going in.

Turn the crock pot on low and cook for about eight hours until the beans are so soft they meld with the cooking liquid giving it all a creamy consistency.

Looking for that creamy consistency. Not quite there yet.

Looking for that creamy consistency. Not quite there yet.

Serve over cooked white rice and sprinkle with chopped green onions.

Red beans and rice

Red beans and rice

Enjoy with a cold beer or maybe borrowing from another Fat Tuesday celebration, this one in Brazil, with a cold caipirinha, the recipe for the cocktail can be found here A Lime Cut Three Ways: The First Cut .

And for more pleasure while you eat and drink on this Fat Tuesday, below is the trailer for Always for Pleasure:

Hawkeye, Fonzie, and The Coach Eat at Margie’s

29 Jan

margies

The door opened and, as if someone gave him a swift kick to the buttocks, Zio stumbled into Margie’s Red Rose Diner. Koko, the restaurant’s proprietor, jumped back in shock as Zio’s rotund frame almost fell on top of her. It took a moment for Zio to right himself from his Kramer-like entrance, but longer for Koko’s heart to stop racing from what could have been a very ugly and most likely painful experience if indeed, the heavy load that is Zio did knock her over.

It was a cold, snowy evening and maybe that was the reason for Zio’s misstep. Or it could be just his over-eagerness to finally eat at Margie’s Red Rose Diner. Either way, no damage had been done and Gerry, Zio and I had our pick of any table or seat at the counter we wanted. The restaurant was empty.

Once Koko’s heart settled, she gracefully assumed her role as both hostess and chef of the family-run Margie’s. The restaurant’s namesake, Margie, was Koko’s mother who ran the restaurant for over thirty years before her passing in 2009. After closing to reassess and remodel, Koko and her husband, known as “Poppa,” now run the small Harlem soul food spot continuing in the same, down home tradition Margie fostered.

Margie back in the day.

Margie back in the day.

We looked at the menu which featured “breakfast all day,” but it was dinner time and though sage sausage, fish and grits, banana pancakes, and salmon croquettes were very tempting, we stuck to the “PM” side of the menu.

When asked what he was going to order, Gerry, who was intently perusing the dinner options, mentioned either the turkey wings or the smothered pork chops.

“I really want those smothered pork chops,” Zio announced, making sure he staked his claim on them. And then feeling somewhat guilty for preempting Gerry, added; “it’s okay if we both get it, isn’t it? There are no rules tonight, are there?”

We weren’t on a Chow City assignment. There were no rules.

But Koko, who stood over us as we were deciding, helped settle any possible conflicts. “It’s all family style here. Everyone shares.”

That made it easy. Gerry went with the turkey wings, Zio the smothered pork chops and now it was up to me to decide between the porgies or whiting.

“It’s really whiting?” Zio inquired suspiciously. “It’s not tilapia posing as whiting?”

Koko glared at him. “No, we don’t do like they do downtown.”

That made it easy. I ordered the fried whiting with collard greens and baked macaroni along with a delicacy for me: toasted, buttered white bread.

“I’m gonna do one dish at a time ‘cause everything here is made to order,” Koko told us. “Since you ordered first,” she said, indicating Zio, “I’ll start with the pork chops. You all right with that?”

Even if we had a choice in the matter, we were more than all right with that.

Red roses were everywhere at Margie's.

Red roses were everywhere at Margie’s.

While we waited for the smothered pork chops, to arrive, the television above our table was on to the evening news. The lead story was a report on an epidemic attack of the norovirus, also known as the stomach flu that was sweeping across the United States. While we listened to hysterical warnings of projectile vomiting and extreme diarrhea, as if on cue, the pork chops, fried and then literally smothered in a dark brown gravy arrived. Despite the unappetizing news, we vigorously devoured the tender chops.

Smothered pork chops, candied yams, collard greens.

Smothered pork chops, candied yams, collard greens.

Next to arrive were the turkey wings, the meat falling off the bone, and smothe in the same gravy used for the pork chops. On a cold, snowy night, no one was complaining about too much gravy. The fried whiting completed our family-style trio and received high praise from all for how delicately they were fried. “This is definitely not tilapia,” Zio confirmed rapturously.

Fried whiting, baked macaroni, collard greens and buttered white toast.

Fried whiting, baked macaroni, collard greens and buttered white toast.

“Where you from,” Koko asked as she came over to check on us.

“125th Street,” I told her.

“You come all that way just to eat here,” she said. “That’s sweet of you.”

I thought for a moment. “It’s not like I came from Cleveland.”

“Are you in radio? You have a radio voice,” she asked me.

“I usually mumble,” I told her, “but when I order food I use my deep, clear disc jockey voice to make sure there is no confusion

She laughed and turned to Gerry. “You know, you look like Henry Winkler.”

“The Fonz,” Zio snickered.

Gerry posing as Arthur Fonzarelli

Gerry posing as Arthur Fonzarelli

“And you…” she stared at me. “Hey, Poppa, remember that show ‘Coach,’ what was the name of the coach?”

Poppa came out from the kitchen. Both Koko and her husband were wearing Pittsburgh Steelers’ baseball hats. We knew where their gridiron loyalty lay. He thought for a moment and then said: “Craig T. Nelson.”

“And your voice is like his too,” Koko said.

“The coach? I always thought I was the quarterback,” I said, disappointment obvious in my now mumbling voice. I knew what Craig T. Nelson looked like. He was balding—with a prominent nose. I didn’t see the resemblance, but if Koko thought I looked like Craig T. Nelson, I wasn’t going to argue.

The Coach

The Coach

“And you,” she stared at Zio. “Let me think on it.”

After the dishes were cleared she came back. “I know, the doctor on ‘ M.A.S.H.’”

“Alan Alda?” Zio said.

“Yeah, him,” Koko said.

“How many pounds ago,” Gerry cracked.

Zio posing as a doctor who actually knew how to use chopsticks.

The expert use of the chopsticks are a giveaway that the man above could not possibly be Zio.

We were hoping for dessert, but Margie said she had run out of her homemade lemonade pie.

“Lemonade pie? Wasn’t that in a song?” Gerry asked.

“Judy in the Skies,” Zio said.

Gerry quickly googled the song on his phone.  A You Tube video from the 60’s came up. We watched it and heard the lyrics mentioning lemonade pie.

“John Fred & his Playboys,” Gerry read. “And it’s ‘Judy in Disguise.’”

“I always thought it was Judy in the Skies,” Zio said.

"Judy in Disguise, well that's a-what you areA-lemonade pies, with a brand new car..."

“Judy in Disguise, well that’s a-what you are
A-lemonade pies, with a brand new car…”

We paid the check and took the allotted ten minutes to get coats, gloves, and hats on.

“We’ll be back for lemonade pie,” I said, speaking for all of us.

“You better,” Koko said and then made sure she steered very clear of Zio as he attempted to exit.

Margie's Red Rose Diner

Margie’s Red Rose Diner
275 W. 144th Street
Harlem

Eat Your Luck

31 Dec

Every New Year’s there’s another food I’m supposed to eat that will bring me good luck. I think I’ve tried them all.

New Year 1

I’ve done the Southern thing with the black eyed peas.

Southern luck thing.

Southern luck thing.

I’ve even tossed in a ham hock to make sure the Hoppin’ John concoction would be more effective.

The ham hock luck guarantee

Ham hock luck assurance

Based on something I read,  I once tried collard greens on New Year’s.

Collard greens

I can’t say that eating greens brought me any luck. And I know if I ever hit the numbers, I would have remembered. Whatever, the greens were delicious…and healthy too.

Collard greens

As long as you have your health….

The Italians have their superstitions too, that’s for sure. I bought into the lentils and sausage scam a few times thinking that maybe by eating them on New Year’s,  the following year would be truly remarkable.

A lucky legume?

A lucky legume?

If the year after the lentils and sausage was particularly amazing, I can’t remember.  Not that it mattered. They were so good I would eat them again even if they meant a mess of bad luck.

Eating fish on New Year’s is another superstition. I tried that one too.

Eat a fish head, get good luck.

And you would think that eating a fish’s head would give me some serious good luck mojo.  Sadly, though the fish head was memorable, any luck derived from eating it was not.

Since I’ve tried them all, this year I’m going with something not even on the New Year’s luck radar.

fried dough1

And I promise, if I have a particularly bad year, I’m not pinning it on fried dough.

frieddough1

When it comes to luck,  in reality that old sports cliche, “you make your own luck” is probably most  true. Just make sure that whatever luck you make tastes good.

Happy New Year!

It’s an Oxtail World…

14 Dec

Ox 003

oxtail5

oxtail6

oxtails (8)

oxtails (10)

Sylvia's and stuff 002

 

oxtail7 (2)

Ox 007

Elsie's

We just live in it.

 

Santa’s Got Soul (Courtesy of Picasso)

30 Nov

Harlem’s Picasso that is.

Harlem's Picasso

The master himself putting the finishing touches on his seasonal creation.

Harlem Picasso

And below, a few glimpses of the Christmas collection at Jacob Restaurant.

Jacob Restaurant

Jacob Restaurant

The artist's signature confirms the work's authenticity.

Note the artist’s signature confirming the work’s authenticity.

So there is really no need to brave the midtown crowds for a peek at the windows of Sak’s or Lord & Taylor’s when you can come uptown to Harlem and not only admire Picasso’s work, but eat real good too.

Neckbones’ Fried Chicken Diary: Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken edition

27 Feb

February 14, 2012, approximately 5:30pm. 2841 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, near 151st St.

Seven-year old son and I enter the cozy confines of Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken. A woman is eating said chicken at one of the few tables in the otherwise deserted restaurant.

“Be right with you, baby,”she says to me.

“Take your time,” I say, as my eyes gaze glassily over the pieces of fried chicken in the warming tray behind the counter. And then I wander to other visible offerings; the short ribs, baked barbecue chicken, oxtails, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, corn bread, turkey wings, pork chops, and pig feet.

While I tell myself to control the watering that is beginning in my mouth, my son has his eyes riveted on the television that is playing a 1990’s “Law & Order” rerun.

The woman is now behind the counter. “Buffet or dinner?” she asks.

“Um dinner,” I respond and then immediately realize my mistake.

“To go or to stay?” She quickly inquires as she holds a styrofoam take out container ready.

“No, I just need 12 pieces of chicken to go.”

“You need 12 pieces?” Her expression suddenly changes; the stress on it evident. “Did you call?”

“No…” I stammer, realizing now that there might be a problem. “I…is Charles here?”

“Charles? No, Charles went to the bank,” she replies brusquely.

“You need to call in advance if you want 12 pieces,” she says, now glaring at me.

“I’ve never called before. Charles has always had the chicken for me,” I respond lamely.

I don’t see any rule there about having to order 12 pieces of chicken in advance.

I hear her huff. “Hey, Joe Buck,*” she calls to someone behind her. “Joe Buck!” she calls again when she doesn’t get a response.

“Can’t expect to get 12 pieces unless you call,” she scoffs and then calls the man’s name once more.

“I’m in the bathroom,” comes the muffled reply.

“Get on out here,” she hollers. “We need chicken.”

Finally a tall man in a white apron appears from the back. “Man wants 12 pieces,” she says to him. “I tell him he got to call in advance.”

Joe Buck looks at me disinterestedly. “Okay, I guess I’m about to make some chicken,” he says calmly.

I look at the pieces that are in the warming tray. Clearly, there are more than 12. Will she not sell them to me because they have been sitting for a long time and the quality is below their standards? Or is there another reason? I keep silent, not wanting to risk a permanent ban from Charles very fine establishment.

“It’s gonna take 25 minutes,” the woman barks to me.

Again I look at the pieces of cooked chicken. And then turn to my son.

“You want to wait?” I ask him.

His face darkens. I know the look. Tears will come next.

“Let me see what I can do,” I hear her say. I turn to the counter. She is playing with the cooked chicken with a pair of tongs. “What pieces you like?” She asks.

“Doesn’t matter. But an assortment would be nice,” I add, hoping I haven’t pushed it.

She then begins to take pieces out and assemble them in separate Styrofoam containers. When she has put together four sets of three pieces there are just a couple of pieces left in the tray, but Joe Buck has more cooking in the big pan.

Recognize this?

“I hope nobody comes in wanting fried chicken,” she says to herself.

I order sides of collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and corn bread.

She totals up what I owe, piece by piece.  From what I can tell as she rapidly adds up the pieces on the old fashioned cash register, a breast cost more than a leg, and a thigh is cheaper than a wing, but she worked too fast for me to figure any of it out.

I pay her and thank her for her help. She takes my money. “Thank you, baby,” she says with the same smile she had when I walked in.

And then my son and I leave with our family’s Valentine Day’s dinner.

*I did not want to use the cook’s real name in fear of impinging on his privacy, thus here I called him Joe Buck.

A Green(s) Thanksgiving

24 Nov

Chop and wash the collard greens (enough to fill up a large pot).

Chop one large onion.

Mince two cloves of garlic.

Take a big pot and saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil until they soften, careful, don’t burn the garlic.

Throw in a few smoked turkey necks or turkey wings (optional).

Add the chopped greens until the top of the pot can barely be covered.

Add about three cups of chicken or vegetable stock.

Sprinkle in some dried hot red pepper.

Salt to taste.

Bring to simmer and cook about an hour or until the greens are tender.

Add a tablespoon of cider vinegar and a few dashes of Tabasco for some extra kick.

Enjoy with turkey.

He who hesitates…

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.

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