My two favorite minorities in the world are the Kurds and fat people. Although I’ve never picked up a Kurd, I’ve been hailed by many, many fat people. Some cabbies have told me that they refuse to pick up obese people on the grounds that they take too long to get into and out of the cab. My response is that it is just as immoral to refuse fat fares as it is to refuse black fares. But I’ve found that those weak-minded cabbies who won’t take the big ‘uns, generally don’t take black people either.
I, of course, jump at every opportunity to take both obese and black fares. My reasoning is simple. Both groups tend to take eating seriously. I’ve had a lot of luck matching taste buds with both fat people and black people. So when I saw a 300-pound black woman in front of Barnard College recently, I swerved across two lanes of Broadway to grab her.
Once she’d gotten inside my taxi, she told me to go to 137th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. PERFECT, I thought. Who better to ask where to find good soul food in Harlem? But it was a delicate subject, and I couldn’t decide exactly how I would bring it up.
We made small talk about traffic and the yellow cab business. “Used to be, just a few years ago, yellow cabs wouldn’t come to Harlem,” she pointed out. “Yeah, things are changing. Bill Clinton’s had his office on 125th Street for years now. There’s money to made up here these days,” I replied pleasantly. “Rents are going up. Black people can’t afford to live in Harlem anymore,” she said. The chit chat came to a halt, and we both just stared out the window as we sat at a red light on 132nd Street.
We were ignoring the fact that we’d both witnessed two or three empty yellow cabs pass her by before I swooped in to pick her up. We were also ignoring the fact that there wasn’t a single face on the street that wasn’t black.
Now we were fast approaching her house. I felt the opportunity slipping away. We caught some lights, and, before I knew it, we were there. She was paying me. She was slinging her bags over her shoulder. She was scooting to the curb side. We hadn’t really been totally honest with each other the entire conversation, so I didn’t know how to broach the soul food topic without sounding offensive.
I was worried that it would seem presumptuous. But I could tell she had the kind of body you get from eating fried foods and way too much butter, not Twinkies and Ho-Hos. Plus I’d run out of time. So I just went for it. “Where do you get your soul food?”
She stopped gathering herself, looked me in the eyes through the rear view, and stated very authoritatively, “The only place I go out for soul food is Londel’s.” JACKPOT. I’d never heard of it.
My friend Nate has been living in Harlem for a few months and told me he’d always be up for an eating expedition. I went off duty, picked him up, and sat down at Londel’s within the half hour.
I hadn’t asked my fare the price range, so I was a little thrown off when I saw that they charged more than $10 for the entrees. But it was the type of place at which the waiters wear tuxedos, so it made sense. Even though we were the only people in there at 5:45pm, we felt underdressed.
But the waiters, even the busboys, were so friendly that we felt right at home before our food even came. And when it did, we felt even better. I went with the fried chicken and waffles because I had a good feeling about the place.
I love the concept of chicken and waffles, but I’d never had a really great dish of it. I’ve eaten at Pan Pan, the old chicken and waffle lunch counter on 135th and Lenox, and I wanted to think it was delicious. But I couldn’t get past the fact that it tasted as if I was eating two things that didn’t naturally go together. Like peanut butter and hot dogs (I’ve had that too: Hagerstown, Maryland minor league game circa 1995), the fried chicken just doesn’t seem to go with the waffles, whether taken in the same or separate bites. I had been considering flying out west specifically for Rosco’s. And then I ate my first bite at Londel’s.
The taste sent me straight to the moon. The flavors and textures blended like I’d always wished they had. It made me reevaluate my whole worldview. If chicken and waffles could be this good, what else have I been missing? There must be so much else out there that I don’t understand.
Likewise, Nate fell head over heals for his mac n’ cheese and collard greens. I was right there with him once I stole my first fork-full. His cornmeal-dusted fried whiting was good too, though both of us had tasted better.
We didn’t really have room for dessert, but our waiter was giving us the hard sell. We almost went with the sweet potato pie, but Nate is a semi-professional pie chef and he nixed the order when the waiter admitted that the crust wasn’t homemade.
We went with the bread pudding instead, and it might be the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I’m not even a dessert person, but I went absolutely bonkers for the bread pudding. The consistency was like something from another planet. The sweetness would explode into every corner of my mouth with each bite. It was classic comfort food cooked in truly gourmet fashion. Nate and I sat in silence, occasionally shooting each other wild-eyed looks, until the plate looked like it came right out of the dish washer.
(notice the rum and caramel sauce expertly drizzled)
I knew that restaurant tip was going to pay off. I could tell how wise my 300 pound fare was. She clearly had a handle on good eating. But she also had a grasp on the subtleties of life.
After she’d gotten herself out of the cab, she leaned back in the window. With more than a bit of suspicion in her voice, she asked, “Why are you so interested.”
“Well, I love soul food. But I also take people on eating tours of the five boroughs,” I told her. “I call myself Famous Fat Dave.”
She sized me up with her eyes, looked down at her own body, and said, “Well Famous Fat Dave. . . Everything’s relative.”
Londel’s, 2620 Frederick Douglass Blvd. btwn 139th and 140th, Harlem