Uncovering Culinary Harlem

Since my recent move from Brooklyn to South Harlem in Manhattan (yes, realtors never miss an opportunity to coin a new neighborhood) my first to-do is to eat. What's good, what's hip, what's happening. While the area may not be as jam-packed with restaurants and bars as say, the Lower East Side or Smith Street in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill, the room to breathe is welcomed with each unique business truly standing out - a contribution of flavor for the neighbors.
Because these business do not have much competition within the area, there was the initial fear that quality would suffer, as it too easily can with any monopoly. But after only a week in my 'hood and a healthy sampling of three distinct meals of differing cuisines, my faith was reinforced in the new expanse above Central Park I now call home.
The break down, shake down, and take down:
(Chic Ethiopian)

2084 Frederick Douglass Blvd, 212-662-0620

Courtesy of Zoma
We dined on a quiet evening only to find our sampler reverberating with flavor. For those not familiar with Ethiopian eats, meat and veggies alike are stewed in different rich sauces spiked with tumeric, ginger, garlic and aromatic herbs. And as with Indian, you can exclaim "Look ma, no utensils!" where the same (brilliant) technique of sopping up saucy delectables with handheld tears of spongey bread, injera, suffices.
Since my guest was vegetarian, we opted for the meatless platter for two ($24.95, great deal) and chose our four food splotches to paint our porous canvas: Atakilt Wett, Fassolia, Shiro Wett, and Misir Wett. The first word refers to the ingredient and the second, the sauce style in which it is prepared. For example, wett/wot indicates to spicy stew, and alecha means it will be mild.
The best of the bunch was the Shiro Wett, a puree of roasted and stewed chickpeas, lentils, and peas in a spicy yellow berbere sauce, where cayenne pepper is the culprit in cognito. Second was the delicious Ataklit Wett (bottom right corner), a medley of cabbage, potatoes, carrots and onions sauteed with ginger, tomatoes, and garlic. The split red lentil puree (Misir Wett) and Fassiola stir-fried string beans were on par with standard Ethiopian cuisine (one of my favorite's since discovering it when I moved to New York in 2004.) The one I would stay away from is the Gomen, boring and flavorless collard greens that were brought to us by accident (thank you, Voodoo spirits).
With endless amounts of ever-absorbing injera that functions as a utensil, food coddler, and filler, the full belly and the low cost made this eater happy. I'm elated this will be a solid go-to just around the bend.
(New American/Beer Garden)
2153 Frederick Douglass Blvd, (212) 866-4500

Courtesy of Harlem Tavern
Smack dab on the B/C subway's corner entrance at 116th street, replete with umbrellas signaling outdoor seating, it's hard not to take note of this thriving beer garden and restaurant. A truly mixed crowd packed the tables inside and out on my visit, but we were lucky to snag a tiny table out front before the true Friday night rush barreled in.
Be it the brisk night, or the beer in my hand, this experience was the epitome of enjoyment. The laid back vibe and extensive beer list beckons a tavern (hence the name) but the higher-brow bar menu incites a stroke of sophistication. Case in point, my selection. On the one hand, I was sipping on a crisp Lagunitas (a California brewing company of which I am decidedly fond) Little Sumpin' Sumpin', an ale  deceivingly pale in color, but robust and round in flavor. While my other hand was scooping expertly prepared mussels from their steaming vat of finger-licking garlicky white wine sauce - something I seriously considered bathing in. Also satisfying, but a bit misleading, was the fish ceviche creatively combined with chunks of avocado - misleading because it did not have that unmistakably bright limey citrus marinade the fish is supposed to "cook" in, but rather just tasted like steamed fish they let settle to room temperature. "Seafood cocktail" would be more accurate.

Courtesy of Harlem Tavern

Courtesy of Harlem Tavern
In addition to beer, my guests sipped on pointedly sweet cocktails (not for me) which they seemed to enjoy. Fun was had by all, especially the flamboyant server who flung open a flamenco fan (pulled out from no where) on more than one occasion to dramatize his table exits (the jury is still out on that one.) Though he may have been confused as to which stage he was on, there was no confusion that this spot is begging to be my very own Cheers. I accept.
(Casual Smokehouse/Bar)
700 West 125th Street, (212) 694-1777

Courtesy of Dinosaur BBQ

When this Syracuse-based chain finally hit Harlem, barbecue enthusiasts went nuts. Now I know why. Was it the most mind-blowing barbie I've ever had? No. But the incredibly easy saloon sensibility that permeates this place almost as much as the smell of a smokin' grill is enough draw to keep patrons - and me - going back again and again. 
The well-stocked bar introduced me to a Bourbon I had never heard of, but fell in love with: Blanton's. The bartender's recommendation was tried and true, so thank you. (To be equally elitist, I introduced him to a Bourbon he had never heard of before, Elijah Craig, when I had initially asked for it!)
BBQ Platter Courtesy of  Rebecca Kritzer
I got the sampler to split with my guest complete with pork ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket and two sides: excellently chosen whipped sweet potatoes with crumbled pecans (I die) and curried veggie succotash. Word to the wise; stick with pork at this joint. The beef brisket was dry, tasteless and not a worthy chew for your tastebuds. But swine saved the day, with tender ribs and even more succulent and rich pulled pork shreds. With a liberal slather of sweet and tangy bbq sauce and a buttery bite of cornbread, I'd say a comfort meal this does make. And this place is all about comfort. Kick up your cowboy boots, listen to some live weekend tunes, and tear apart that rack o' ribs without caution as you would in your own home. Just be sure to bring your own bib.