The name “Spanish Harlem” just tickled my curiosity. Is it really Spanish? Or Mexican? Puerto Rican? Or identical to the regular Harlem? I had to go. I did a little Wikipedia research beforehand: The restaurants are few (unless we’re talking fast food) and the population is poor. So one Saturday, determined to find an “authentic” non-fast food meal, I looked up all the Spanish Harlem restaurants in the New York Magazine restaurant database and jumped on the 4/5/6 to 125th.
It was a little early for dinner, so my friend Katie and I stopped at Sammy’s Nail Salon on Lexington between 123rd and 124th and got a fast (unexpected!) lesson in Spanish Harlem culture.
“The Ox will come next week, next week!”
Sammy is Korean. The first guy that started on my nails clipped and buffed away for about two or three minutes before Sammy came over and yelled at him and gave him a lesson on how to really clip and buffer, in Korean, and on me for practice. The poor kid was so lost, Sammy shooed him out of the way and began chatting with me. “You girls going out tonight? You getting your nails done! Where you going?”
Before I could answer, a skinny teenage boy walks in and inquires about Sammy’s latest men’s cologne shipment (“The Ox will come next week, next week!”—We decide he meant ‘Axe’). Outside the window I see the same cologne kid copping a pair of fake Air Forces against the store window. Sammy passes me off to an older, blind-ish man who proceeds to lay down a clear topcoat and later a mandarin OPI color. He concentrates so hard, you’d think he’d be working on the next Mona Lisa. I look at them after, surprised to see they actually look pretty awful.
All done? I pay my $7 and wait in the back for the bathroom to open up (across from a wall of fake Gucci, Prada, and other mens’ colognes). A five-foot-tall, 65-year-old Asian man walks out, and the smell immediately follows him. He grins from ear to ear and giggles when he sees I’ve been waiting. I decide to hold off.
We head to the restaurant: La Fonda Boricua, a Puerto Rican joint a couple blocks down Lexington, on 106th Street. It’s a local secret (Who comes from downtown Manhattan to visit this little place in Harlem?) but no one bothers to pay us any attention when we walk in. We choose a booth in the corner and wait for a waiter or menus. Neither come. We finally flag someone down, who, in broken Spanish, lists off a couple dishes the kitchen’s making that night. He has something with chicken, something with potatoes, sides of collard greens, and a steak. We opt for a chicken and corn meatloaf, a traditional Puerto Rican dish that he recommends, and the rump steak with onions. They come out on plates heaping with white rice and doused in thick, cream-based sauces. Delicious. Our grand total (without tax/tip) came to $16, and we left full and happy.
The verdict? Spanish Harlem rocks.
–Tara for TKGO