Hamilton Heights, Harlem, NYC — There are very few concessions an eater has to make in the city. Usually, for whatever kinds of food you have an affinity—such as dishes you grew up that were indigenous or secular to your hometown—there is a close, even geographically speaking, approximation within, honestly, four of the five boroughs.
However, I had been convinced that one of my all time favorite sandwiches, the fried whiting sandwich, would never get the same attention and accolades as your now popularly ubiquitous bánh mi sandwiches, tortas, arepas, croque Monsieurs and Madames, Cubanos, as well as New York City standards, like chicken parms, meatball sandwiches, and the ever-growing re-imaginings of the formerly simple breakfast egg and ham sandwiches.
That may all change, though, and hopefully with my help. After reading, then reposting, New York Magazine's list of the Best 101 Sandwiches in New York City. They listed a fried whiting sandwich, very possibly my favorite hot sandwich of all time, at #66, and that piqued my interest so much that I scrapped an original plan to go check out Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien, hopped on a crosstown bus, then the uptown, and, in less time than it takes me to get to the Lower East Side, found the humble awning and doorway that apprised Famous Fish Market, and the four steps that led to its takeout-only (and cash only) order counter, with its simple menu listed on the wall above the counter.
In Harlem—in most "urban" neighborhoods nationwide—you'll find a "fish fry" place every few blocks, all of which do snapping great business. They have been much harder to come by below 96th Street, however, on both sides of the island. I've had to make do with Mickey D's Filet o' Fish sandwich, which satisfies the nostalgia of attending hundreds of outdoor "Fish Fries" from up in Washington Heights and the Bronx all the way down to Elloree and Orangeburg, South Carolina.
I've even had to do extensive research among the few associates I know who've shared my culinary upbringing (hard to do on the decidedly "Anglo" Upper East Side, actually, decidedly "Anglo" lower two-thirds of Manhattan). I've been told about some place on 116th and 2nd Avenue, and I fondly miss the fried whiting and fried porgy sandwiches at the fish store on 125th and St. Nicholas Avenue, across the street from my dentist of several years.
As I perused quickly the simply minimal menu options, I ordered the accoladed fried whiting sandwich, wondering if the last one I had was actually when I last saw my father in SC, some 4 or 5 years ago. The fish filets for my sandwich were seasoned, dipped, floured, and fried to order, and soon enough, a stack of them were layered between two pieces of soft, untoasted bread, between which I squeezed some tartar sauce from a plastic bottle.
Heaven. Good call, NY Mag. And thank you. First of all, I couldn't even believe the size of the sandwich. Not one or two filets, but six, maybe eight? I lost count. Each one, crackly crispy-skinned on the outside, beautifully seasoned, wrapping some nicely firm and flaky white fish, clean with flavor. Soft bread assists each chew and swallow while creamy tartar sauce bright with finally chopped pickles added the appropriate amount of spark for my tongue's enjoyment.
As I stood on the sidewalk right outside Famous Fish Market's front door (only 4 or 5 customers can fit in the place at one time) shoveling the yummy handful in my mouth, I contemplated also sampling the fried shrimp and chips platter (one of my sister's all-time favorite dishes). Should I? Um, yes...!
Another plentiful bounty, which travelled well with me back downtown on the train and on the bus back to the east side, reaching into the brown paper bag to grab to grab tasty morsels as I commuted. By the time I got home, they were surprisingly still warm and still crispy on the outside. I felt I had really lucked out.
Unfortunately, frying whitings and/or porgies is a skill I have yet to nearly perfect. My dad has, along with most of my other favorite dishes, and I've yet to come close. A few other places uptown are good enough to appeal my mouth's and tummy's nostalgia, but Famous Fish Market—to date, in my opinion, not nearly famous enough!—will be rewarded with repeated visits from me, as I finally have found a place that does one of my favorite, if geographically esoteric, sandwiches very much to my liking.
And I'm not their only fan. They purportedly boast Shake Shack-sized lines every lunch and dinner, and even at 4 p.m. the place was abuzz with food traffic, many munchers quietly curious as to why I was taking so many photos.
But you guys know why, and now you know why you should make the trip to West Harlem. And probably why Famous Fish is already famous to everyone who lives or works above 110th Street.
Famous Fish Market | 684 St. Nicholas Ave. (at 145th St.) | 212.491.8323