By:Â Justin Chan
Harlem has always been known for its soul food, but many immigrant communities are diversifying the neighborhood's food culture. Mexican and Cuban restaurants have flooded Spanish Harlem, while halal stands occupy busy roads and hope to draw in some potential customers. Food in Harlem, contrary to popular belief, is not one-dimensional. In fact, it is far from it.
While Latin and South Asian foods have always been popular cuisines in the city, I decided to look for something more in tune with the neighborhood's African roots. Harlem, after all, has been home to the African American community for decades, so it was only fitting that I looked for a spot that closely reflected its heritage. As I wandered through the neighborhood for an hour or so, I passed by several restaurants that offered many different kinds of cuisines, but none seemed to serve anything that I could buy for my Five Dollar Food Challenge.
My journey seemed hopeless until I made my way down Frederick Douglass Boulevard and arrived at 118th Street. At that point, I had finally reached a restaurant, or rather a cafe, that served cheap yet delicious grub. Patisserie des Ambassades is a small and deceivingly upscale Senegalese eatery that differs from nearby holes in the walls in its decor and atmosphere. The cafe's outside appearance closely resembles the facade of a bakery in Little Italy, while the inside bursts with vibrant colors. To add to its decoration, the cafe displays mini pastries in front of its window.
Patisserie des Ambassades serves breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. Entree prices can range up to $13, but for $5, I had the chance to experience something that was truly distinctive of Senegalese cuisine. When I asked the manager to recommend something affordable but unique, he suggested ordering the fataya, a patty shaped in the form of a crescent with a thick crust. At first glance, I found it eerily similar to an empanada, a stuffed pastry that has become widely popular in Latin America and Europe. When I tasted it, however, I could easily spot the difference between the two delicacies. The stuffing inside the fataya, although made of beef, tasted like saturated, minced tuna. I could also taste a bit of citrus. The patty was served with a hot chili sauce, but I decided against dipping it in order to avoid mixing my palate. Even without the extra dip, I enjoyed the flavors inside.
An extra $5 got me Senegalese spring rolls, which are a tad different from the Vietnamese ones you might find in Chinatown or Flushing. The skin is thicker and more gelatinous, and the meat is in the shape of a sausage. As soon as I bit into one of the rolls, the grease and juice oozed from the skin, which only made my eating experience more enjoyable (and, unfortunately, less healthy).
Though it took the kitchen awhile to cook both the fataya and spring rolls, it was worth the wait. Having never tried Senegalese food before, I definitely relished my first experience and look forward to visiting Patisserie des Ambassades again to try more tasty delights.
Patisserie des Ambassades, 2200 Eighth Avenue (between 117th St & 118th St), New York, NY 10026; tel. (212) 666-0078
Photos: Justin Chan
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