Charles Gabriel is one of the great chefs of our era. In the mid-80s, already pushing age 40, he started frying chickens in his apartment and selling them from a picnic table on the street in Harlem. His method followed a historic one and required the use of giant skillets rather than deep fryers, a superior technique that had famously been employed by earlier African American chefs like Deacon Burton in Atlanta. This method was absurdly labor intensive, requiring constant vigilance, as he watched and turned each piece of chicken to ensure it would be evenly cooked. The result was fried chicken with a perfectly browned crust, and moister, more flavorful interior.
I’ve watched his progress beginning around 1995 as Gabriel hopscotched between food trucks and storefronts in various corners of Harlem, each with a slightly different name. I first visited him in the company of Chowhound founder Jim Leff, the chef’s earliest advocate, as he parked the van on West 145th just down the street from the Riverbank State Park. Now Charles Gabriel has landed with Charles Pan-Fried Chicken on the Upper West Side on 72nd Street near the express subway stop, in the fanciest premises he’s yet occupied (and more locations are on the way). Over the years, his typical establishment had been somewhat rundown and ragtag.
The deep and narrow carryout cafe, with a nifty neon skillet burning in the window, offers no seating. A gleaming counter in front stands beside a walkway to a kitchen filled with brand-new equipment, some of it still in boxes. A menu on the wall over the counter deploys white moveable letters on a black surface, lending an old-fashioned air and allowing the bill of fare to be changed on a daily basis, toggling between soul-food standards that include barbecued ribs, smothered chicken, fried fish, pulled pork, and turkey wings, most priced a little over $15 with two sides — with some new offerings like jumbo shrimp and salmon.
Charles himself, now in his 70s, stands mid-restaurant before a series of four large frying pans wielding a set of tongs, a puffy white toque perched on his head. He pauses for a second when I stroll over to talk and remind him I’ve been a customer for nearly 30 years at various locations — some so obscure his devotees had trouble finding him. But he doesn’t pause long to talk because a skillet of chicken is frying before him, requiring his constant attention.
In our age, fried chicken is often indifferently prepared. Most customers buy from chains that herd the pieces into vast deep reservoirs of oil. When a batch comes out of the basket, one small piece may be well done and almost burnt, while another larger one is nearly raw in the middle with patches of semi-flaccid skin. By contrast, skillet frying — when done right — treats each piece of chicken with more precision. Meanwhile, the chicken elites insist on brining their chicken parts, sometimes soaking them ridiculously in liquids like sweet tea. This results in bloated breast meat that has the texture and flavor of a pillow.
Gabriel’s old-school technique is the opposite. He clearly prefers unmarinated small pieces and dark meat — principally the wing and the thigh — which can be cooked more quickly, taste better, and have a larger proportion of crunchy skin even when the general public often prefers boneless, skinless breast meat.
I order fried chicken with collard greens and mac and cheese, and receive two thighs and a wing. The thigh had a nicely crunchy skin, and the interior had a depth of flavor that made me think an heirloom bird had flown in the window and landed in the fryer. The mac and cheese was intensely yellow and better than I’d expected, and the collard greens were chopped fine and magnificent in their simplicity.
As a contrast to the chicken, I ordered pork ribs ($19.95), which came in a rack of four and were as large as the chicken pieces had been small. Usually at soul-food spots, at least in NYC, the pork ribs come heavily coated in barbecue sauce and taste too sweet. But here, the ribs were smoky, and benefitting from a mustardy rub. I wondered if the mustard rub had been something Gabriel learned from his mother, just like the skillet frying he copied.
With the ribs I got yams and lima beans, and if you’ve hated lima beans all your life, you haven’t tasted these. Each bean glistened with a mild and creamy flavor. The yams were not of the canned variety, either. Though they were cloyingly sweet, the tuber’s taste shone through; the color was bright and the flavor buttery. It’s rare to see so much care being taken with each and every side dish.
But it’s the fried chicken I’ll remember most. Part of the allure is Gabriel’s story: He’d grown up near Charlotte, North Carolina, one of 13 brothers and 8 sisters, picking cotton as a kid before moving to New York at 17 and working 20 years as a cook at the legendary Harlem restaurant Copeland’s. His way with poultry never fails.
I felt like this batch, and every previous one that I’ve tasted from Gabriel, has demonstrated a gradual evolution in his technique, an incremental advancement in the science of chicken frying. This version featured a slightly thicker and crisper skin than before. And as I sit here, I can’t help but think I’ve just eaten the best fried chicken I’ll ever have, and am torn between rushing back for another serving, or retaining this meal in my imagination as a sort of platonic ideal of chicken.