clock menu more-arrow no yes
Margie's Red Rose Diner

Sietsema's Central Harlem Fried Fish Sandwich Run

View as Map

121212_bk12_bk1212123123112008_10_hasmaps%20%281%29.jpegAfrican-Americans have made their mark in New York City since its earliest days, most especially where food and hospitality are concerned. Born in Haiti and known during his lifetime as Black Sam (the facts of his birth and race are in some dispute), Samuel Fraunces founded the Queen Charlotte Tavern at the corner of Pearl and Dock Streets in 1762; a few years later it assumed the historic name of Fraunces Tavern, where George Washington bid adieu to his troops. In 1825 Thomas Downing established the city's first and finest oyster house at 5 Broad Street, forerunner of a type of restaurant quintessential to 19th-century New York. During the succeeding decade, Thomas M. Jackson — also from an oyster background — became high-society's most sought-after caterer, as detailed by Williams Grimes in Appetite City. Indeed, in Victorian New York, there were probably far more black chefs and caterers than there are today.

But many of the group's most notable contributions to the culinary life of the city came a century ago as African-Americans, fleeing poverty and racial violence, migrated northward en masse, principally from Georgia and the Carolinas, to settle in neighborhoods like Harlem, Ft. Greene, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. There, such dishes as fried chicken, barbecued ribs, buttermilk cornbread, collard greens, potato salad, okra, and chitterlin's were instated as citywide favorites, as large swaths of Brooklyn and Manhattan became populated with small cafes run by women serving what later became known as soul food. Sadly, few of those cafes remain.

[All photos by Robert Sietsema]


But if one were to choose the African-American dish that has persisted most successfully in these rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods today, it would be the fried-fish sandwich. Here's my theory about how this delicacy first arose. The transplanted black Southerners brought with them a love of catfish, but found none here when they arrived. What they did find in abundance was whiting, a low-cost local fish whose slender filets resembled those of catfish in shape, size, and price, but lacked the marvelous muddy taste of the best creek-caught catfish. Deep-fried or pan-sauteed, with a crust principally containing flour and cornmeal, these filets were readily incorporated into sandwiches that were typically dressed with tartar sauce and vinegary Southern hot sauces such as Tabasco, Crystal, Louisiana, and Texas Pete. There remain probably three dozen places that specialize in fried fish sandwiches in Harlem alone, providing, at from $4 to $7 apiece, one of the neighborhood's most dependable and satisfying bargain meals. These were once served on store-bought commercial white bread, but over the last few years, whole wheat has become more popular, not only due to its enhanced flavor and pleasing appearance, but because of the health considerations that finally overtook the soul food genre. (As also seen in the smoked turkey wings that have been substituted for pork fatback in recipes for collard greens.)

A friend who lives in the neighborhood recently invited me on a fried fish sandwich run in his Central Harlem neighborhood. His son accompanied us on scooter. Visiting places known to both him and me, we cruised eight establishments in just under four hours, and found six of them open. At each, we attempted to order the same whiting sandwich on whole wheat, and dress it with the house tartar sauce and hot sauce. Sandwich prices are given, and we rated each one on the combination of value, frying technique, fish freshness, and overall desirability on a scale of 1 to 100.


· All Posts by Sietsema [~ENY~]

Read More
Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

1. Sea & Sea

Copy Link
212-862-6390

This is one of ten or so Korean-owned fish markets in greater Harlem, selling not only raw fish, but steamed crab legs, fish and chips, and fish sandwiches at astonishingly cheap prices. The drawback of buying a fried fish sandwich here is that you never quite know what type of fish you’re going to get. Our sandwich had three gigantic filets that proved to be flounder rather than whiting.
Price: $4
Rating: 81/100

2. Cafe 22

Copy Link
2309 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd
New York, NY
212-281-8500

This small soul-food café serving halal food has walls decorated with photos of Black Liberation milestones from the last century. The fish is impeccably fresh, skin-on whiting filets in a light breading. Here you see what real whiting looks like, and how much the filets outwardly resemble catfish. Price: $6
Rating: 86/100.

3. Doug E.'s

Copy Link
2245 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd
New York, NY 10027
212-368-4371

Founded by beat box rapper Doug E. Fresh, his namesake café sought to reintroduce a fast-food version of chicken and waffles – a winning combination invented in Harlem nightclubs – to the neighborhood. Fried fish sandwiches featuring four filets are a prominent part of his menu, once again using flounder and an herbal breading that tastes like Old Bay.
Price: $6
Rating: 75/100.

4. B & B Fish & Chips

Copy Link
2453 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd
New York, NY
212-283-3474

Not open at 12 noon.

5. United Fried Chicken

Copy Link
567 Malcolm X Blvd
New York, NY
347-455-0467

One of the Afghan-owned halal fried chicken joints that have happily blanketed parts of Harlem and multiple neighborhoods in Brooklyn, this place serves fried fish sandwiches as a sideline. Reinterpreted as a hero dressed with orange “French” dressing, lettuce, and ripe tomato, it features one humongous filet of indeterminate species.
Price: $5
Rating: 67/100

6. Margie's Red Rose Diner

Copy Link
275 W 144th St
New York, NY 10030
(212) 491-7685

Margie passed a few years ago, but her small café (depicted in the movie Finding Forrester as located in the Bronx) is still going strong, though the fried chicken is now made with chicken cutlets. No matter, three pleasantly briny skin-on filets of substantial size go into the sandwich, fried to a paleness that leaves the fish moist and tasty. Price: $7Rating: 90/100.

7. O’fishole Seafood

Copy Link
274 W 145th St # A
New York, NY
212-234-2601

Not so much a restaurant as a lean-to that slouches against an adjacent building, the curiously named O’fishole is a neighborhood favorite, but turned out to be closed when we cruised by around 2:30 pm.

8. Famous Fish Market

Copy Link
684 Saint Nicholas Ave
New York, NY 10030
(212) 491-8323

This Hamilton Heights fish sandwich joint (it’s not really a market) often boasts a line that might make you think the patrons were waiting for Cronuts, but its top seller is a whiting sandwich incorporating an amazing six filets, almost enough for two diners. There’s a nice cracked peppercorn component in the breading.
Price: $6.25
Rating: 94/100

Loading comments...

1. Sea & Sea

2391 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd

This is one of ten or so Korean-owned fish markets in greater Harlem, selling not only raw fish, but steamed crab legs, fish and chips, and fish sandwiches at astonishingly cheap prices. The drawback of buying a fried fish sandwich here is that you never quite know what type of fish you’re going to get. Our sandwich had three gigantic filets that proved to be flounder rather than whiting.
Price: $4
Rating: 81/100

2. Cafe 22

2309 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd, New York, NY

This small soul-food café serving halal food has walls decorated with photos of Black Liberation milestones from the last century. The fish is impeccably fresh, skin-on whiting filets in a light breading. Here you see what real whiting looks like, and how much the filets outwardly resemble catfish. Price: $6
Rating: 86/100.

2309 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd
New York, NY

3. Doug E.'s

2245 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd, New York, NY 10027

Founded by beat box rapper Doug E. Fresh, his namesake café sought to reintroduce a fast-food version of chicken and waffles – a winning combination invented in Harlem nightclubs – to the neighborhood. Fried fish sandwiches featuring four filets are a prominent part of his menu, once again using flounder and an herbal breading that tastes like Old Bay.
Price: $6
Rating: 75/100.

2245 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd
New York, NY 10027

4. B & B Fish & Chips

2453 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd, New York, NY

Not open at 12 noon.

2453 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd
New York, NY

5. United Fried Chicken

567 Malcolm X Blvd, New York, NY

One of the Afghan-owned halal fried chicken joints that have happily blanketed parts of Harlem and multiple neighborhoods in Brooklyn, this place serves fried fish sandwiches as a sideline. Reinterpreted as a hero dressed with orange “French” dressing, lettuce, and ripe tomato, it features one humongous filet of indeterminate species.
Price: $5
Rating: 67/100

567 Malcolm X Blvd
New York, NY

6. Margie's Red Rose Diner

275 W 144th St, New York, NY 10030

Margie passed a few years ago, but her small café (depicted in the movie Finding Forrester as located in the Bronx) is still going strong, though the fried chicken is now made with chicken cutlets. No matter, three pleasantly briny skin-on filets of substantial size go into the sandwich, fried to a paleness that leaves the fish moist and tasty. Price: $7Rating: 90/100.

275 W 144th St
New York, NY 10030

7. O’fishole Seafood

274 W 145th St # A, New York, NY

Not so much a restaurant as a lean-to that slouches against an adjacent building, the curiously named O’fishole is a neighborhood favorite, but turned out to be closed when we cruised by around 2:30 pm.

274 W 145th St # A
New York, NY

8. Famous Fish Market

684 Saint Nicholas Ave, New York, NY 10030

This Hamilton Heights fish sandwich joint (it’s not really a market) often boasts a line that might make you think the patrons were waiting for Cronuts, but its top seller is a whiting sandwich incorporating an amazing six filets, almost enough for two diners. There’s a nice cracked peppercorn component in the breading.
Price: $6.25
Rating: 94/100

684 Saint Nicholas Ave
New York, NY 10030

Related Maps