Smothered with deliciousness
My friend Kathryn Hill shares my jones for soul food. She's tried many spots, but always says she liked Harley's the best. She had a special fondness for the Thurston Road location in the '80s, and took me to the downtown, Clinton location during its brief existence.
Well, Wilbert Harley --- pastor, meat-cutter, businessman, and cook --- is back. Along with his wife, Celestine, he's opened up Featuring Harley's at a more accessible spot on North Clinton, just off the corner of Norton (a minute south of 104). Clearly, the place is going to require some extensive, um, research.
Soul food is, in some respects, the polar opposite of what goes on in much of the contemporary, culinary universe. It is not about a back-lot garden, free-range chickens, and un-weaned lamb, all barely cooked to preserve Gaea's unassailable goodness. Rather, soul food makes the best it can from what most of us can afford on a daily basis: bone-in or tougher cuts of meats, and dried, canned, or frozen vegetables. A good cook like Harley can spin pure gold from this flax.
Cube steak, the Thursday special, was my introduction. Cube steak is round that's had the tar knocked out of it in a tenderizing machine. Like many "lesser" cuts, it's more flavorful than expensive steaks, and the cubing makes it melt like butter. Harley fries and smothers it in gravy, and it just rocks. $10.95 brought a huge steak and two sides. And of course, it's all about the sides.
Black-eyed peas and collard greens are beautiful, with a bit of fat, but not so much that it masks the flavors of the peas or greens. Yams are dark with spice and pucker-your-lips sweet. My wife loved them. Soul food string beans are slow-cooked, full of pot liquor flavor, but often a mushy mess; these had all that depth of flavor, but maintained their texture.
"He didn't know how to cook 30 years ago," Celestine says of her husband, "but he started practicing on kids, and something just happened." It sure did. Not a single item disappointed. The pork ribs ($10.95) were flavorful right down to the bone (Kathryn says, rightly, that most ribs have no flavor inside). Harley's sauce is sweet with some interesting mysteries of spice.
My favorite main dish was the smothered pork chops, thick, meaty, and tender, with a gravy you'll want on everything ($9.95). My wife relished her juicy, baked half-chicken ($9.95). If you're down with the hardcore, come Wednesday for oxtails ($10.95), Friday for southern-style catfish ($9.95), or Saturday for chitterlings ($11.95).
Harley is a pastor, and Celestine works at the church, too; their positive, centered personalities pervade Harley's. It's clean and comfortable, the young wait staff friendly and absolutely polite. I believe the sign forbidding foul language will be enforced. We came on a Sunday, and though Harley's has a casual feel, felt underdressed as families arrived after church. Still, we felt nothing but welcome.
Soul food is often sweet, and the iced tea is very much so (but delicious, and served in big, ol' mason jars). Peach cobbler is $3.50, but the rich, large portion was dessert for five of us. Kathryn tells me by e-mail that Harley's cornbread was "some of the best ever." I'm a fan of true cornbread, with little or no flour, not sweet, and meant as a side for savories. You can't get it in Rochester. But Harley's is the closest I've had; not too sweet, and with good, corn texture.
Celestine Harley thinks people often don't know what to expect in a soul food restaurant, but wants to stress Harley's' family atmosphere. I'll second that; it worked beautifully for my whole brood (and the value is excellent when you consider that you'll get lunch the next day from your leftovers). Kathryn wrote me, "I'm surprised to hear about Harley's. Thought he gave up." But Celestine says, "Harley is back and he wants to stay back." With great food, value, and service, and a better, more accessible location, Harley should stay back for a good while this time. Let's hope so.
Featuring Harley's, 1415 North Clinton Avenue, 266-8070. Hours: Tuesday & Wednesday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 1-6 p.m.
Corn! Tomatoes! Man, do I love this time of year. Corn is everywhere, of course, but if you've driven by Gentle's Farm Market and found it closed, don't despair. Mr. Gentle is still growin' and pickin', and you can self serve at a stand next to the market. Also, get some of Mark Cupolo's corn chowder at Max Chophouse. And don't forget to get your daily BLT while the gettin's good on tomatoes. Stop by Swan's Market at 231 Parcells Avenue for bacon smoked right here in the city.