Summer in Harlem is not sleepy. East Harlem especially, also known as El Barrio, does not empty in July and August. This part of town puts on a show. Crowds of people sit out on milk crates and folding chairs watching the world sweat by. Hydrants are opened more often than not and though the Upper East Side is quickly creeping up town, this is not changing any time soon.
We’ve told you where to ride your bike (or Citi Bike, which launches there later this summer) in Greenpoint and Bed-Stuy, and now we’re headed into the city. Starting in the 90s and heading on up until you run into the Harlem River, music gets louder and colors get brighter. On the weekend the neighborhood doesn’t really get going until after 11:00 a.m. so sleep in and then head out.
Got a favorite spot in the neighborhood that you’d like to share? Let us know by leaving a comment.
Before launching into East Harlem’s present, hit up this cafe representing the area’s past. New transplants often have no idea that East Harlem was once home to a proud and strong Italian immigrant population and some semi-famous gangsters. Da Capo has a standing bar where folks eat authentic Italian pastries (Cantuccine, Bacio di Dama, Esse Mignon) and sip espresso strong enough for the docs of Mount Sinai.
Hot Bread Kitchen, housed in the historical market center beneath the MetroNorth tracks, may just be East Harlem’s most celebrated businesses, and rightly so. This non-profit bakery is often lauded for its efforts to incubate women-owned businesses and train immigrant women to bake professionally. But Hot Bread’s adorable cafe, called Almacen, is a great place to meet up, pick up some gorgeous bread and wander around the market, which is full of vendors from South America and Africa.
Next to La Marqueta is the Urban Garden Center, which, in addition to carrying a few choice specialty food items, keeps chickens, has gorgeous houseplants and could use some extra love after a recent fire.
In the 1940s, East Harlem swung decidedly from Italian to Puerto Rican and there it is has stayed. Afternoon snacks really must involve Cuchifritos. They do all kinds of Puerto Rican specialties of the comfort food variety with lots of roasted and fried pork, fritters, potatoes and plantains. The sign is iconic in Spanish Harlem, but you may see the ever-present line first.
Loop back downtown for small plates that don’t take themselves too seriously at ABV. The outdoor terrace is a nice option to enjoy some lesser-known charcuterie options like nduja and rabbit terrine as well as half a dozen veggie small plates in a casual atmosphere.
After its lease on 145th street ran out, April Kenichi and Keiko Tajima, the married pair behind the beloved Harlem restaurant Mountain Bird had no home for over a year. But in August 2015, the poultry-focused bistro found a new home in the space of a catering company in East Harlem, which they now call “Tastings Social Present Mountain Bird.” Locals rave about their brunch and don’t seem to mind the slightly less central address as long as its permanent.
Uptown Grand Central
If you want to support some serious community improvement work in East Harlem, stop by the Metro North viaduct at 125th and Park Avenue to see what’s going on. The New Harlem East Merchants Association is working hard to reinvigorate and clean up this troubled space and on wednesdays there a farmers market and outdoor fitness classes too. Read more about these efforts in our June issue.
In 2015, the New York Post called getting a reservation at Rao’s on East 114th Street “the hardest reservation in town,” and every six months or so, someone in the food media writes a first person essay about how to get in. The food is legendary. The red sauce is jarred in the grocery store, but it’s hard to call this a recommendation as the likelihood of any of us getting in is very low. But here’s a story about a couple that made it, without a reservation—so there’s still hope. Also it’s closed on weekends, because who needs the bother, right?
Photo credit: Facebook/La Marqueta