Charles' in Charge

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The first thing to know about Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen on Lenox at 125th is that it’s in the back of a pizzeria called Slice of Harlem. For no good reason, this is unsettling, most of all if you’re there to eat soul food while everyone else is munching on pepperoni pie. I suppose if you wanted the real Charles’ experience, you wouldn’t have minded heading Uptown.

Yes, this is Charles’ Downtown branch, as it’s cutely called, but only in relation to the primary restaurant on 151st Street. Now that you know all this, walk straight to the back once you’re inside the pizza shop. Whether you are eating in or taking your food to go, you’ll find a steam table with a dazzlingly complicated array of instructions regarding how much each different food costs and what plastic or styrofoam receptacle you should put that food in. Ignore all of this and grab a styrofoam box. It’s all cheap and, unless you’re a glutton, you will eat for a song.

The steam table confronts you with a multitude of sins: Oxtail, spare ribs, rib tips, butter beans, black eyed peas, baked fish, collards, corn, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, mac and cheese, beef stew and others vie for attention and space in your stomach. The fried chicken and cornbread are kept under heat-lamps and watchful eyes near the register. They are sold separately by cashiers who are devastatingly polite, considering the price at which you’re stealing their food. Near the register, there’s also a hot sauce that brightens up anything that may have been sitting too long.

If you’re taking your food to go, then go. If you’re sitting, avoid the last table along the wall, as it’s where employees tend to take their breaks. Pick another, and go ahead and pop open that lid. Rip it off if you’re sure you’ll finish your meal. The short walk from register to table should’ve already swirled up the sauces and seasonings and flavors of the food you selected. Taste how the too-sweet yams are cut by the zesty butter running off the collard greens. Notice how the lima beans’ smooth texture soaks up the white gravy that the oxtails were smothered in. Smell how the sweet, dark, tangy barbecue sauce on the ribs infects your every breath with a smoky but crisp aroma.

Do yourself a favor and drag your plastic fork through the food, and don’t even look at what ends up stuck to it. Just smell it and pop it into your mouth. Nothing at Charles’ Kitchen stands out as the best in its class, but taken together, the magnificent jumble of taste and textures easily surpass what’s dished at out at Harlem’s other soul food emporiums.

The fried chicken also benefits from dredging. Rip off a shred and drag it through the flotsam running all over your container, whose high walls you are starting to appreciate for their ability to dam up those varied sauces. I’ve had better fried chicken, but there’s nothing wrong with Charles’ and, like the cornbread, it too benefits from being exposed to a Pandora’s box of flavors.

If I were trying to impress friends by taking them to a real, non-tourist trap soul food joint, I might take them to Charles’ “Uptown” branch. If I just wanted the same good meal 25 blocks to the south, I would take them instead to the back of this pizza joint on Lenox Avenue. I wish Charles had his own shop here, a nicer spot in the sun at which to showcase his talents. But Charles has clearly decided to make his bones in the back of another restaurant, and the vittles he’s dishing out stick to them like white on rice. (About $8 for a hearty meal.)

Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen
308 Lenox Ave. (near. 125th St.)

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