by Eric Ginsburg
It happened as if I had planned it. Almost three years after her last visit, my sister flew to town from Boston, and as soon as she landed I drove her to downtown Greensboro just before 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday night. She was hungry but La Rue’s late-night noodle menu hadn’t quite begun yet, so we circled the central 300 block of South Elm Street.
My sister has been to Greensboro before, several times, but in the three years since she last visited, much has changed downtown. As we walked, I was pointing out new venues and describing planned projects when we accidentally happened upon the soft opening of Harlem Express.
A roped-off sidewalk-dining area in front of the restaurant and bar overflowed with people, and a sandwich board proclaimed the new establishment’s soft opening. The black-owned business — one of only a few in downtown Greensboro — perfectly illustrated my point about the rapid growth the city is experiencing. After pointing out the new 1618 Downtown restaurant directly next door we gawked at the expanded Cheesecakes by Alex across the street — which held a ribbon-cutting the same week as Harlem Express’ soft opening. I noted the relatively new Short Shanks bar on McGee Street and Beer Co. as we kept walking to a late dinner at the city’s new French (and sometimes Vietnamese) restaurant.
A week after the soft launch, my girlfriend Kacie and I circled back to Harlem Express, and the décor and level of cohesiveness struck us immediately. Kacie accurately compared the Champagne-colored seats, open rear dining area and use of white to the style at Print Works Bistro. I repeatedly remarked that this couldn’t be someone’s first restaurant considering the lack of hiccups in service, taste and style.
There’s an old rule in culinary journalism, or at least the School of Clarey in which I was raised; don’t review a restaurant until it’s been open for a month, because they deserve a chance to work out the kinks. But Harlem Express needs no further preparation.
A limited list of entrees — shrimp, catfish, chicken breast, salmon and wings, as well as shrimp & grit and shrimp étouffée specials — is buttressed nicely by appealing appetizers including crab cake bites, calamari and glazed pork-belly tacos. Vegetarians: don’t bother. Beer connoisseurs neither; wine and 13 cocktails comprise the entire drink menu.
We regarded the shrimp étouffée — a shrimp and rice dish that might benefit from more seasoning — as the low point of the meal, but only in comparison to fantastic pork-belly tacos, memorable fried chicken wings and classic mac and cheese.
The tacos, utilizing corn tortillas and small chunks of watermelon, combined unconventional partners for a satisfying appetizer, a nice counterpart to the two watermelon-influenced cocktails we ordered (try the watermelon lemonade).
We wondered as we left if we should’ve ordered the catfish — it’s certainly more unique than chicken wings — but we couldn’t help ourselves. Take it from two experienced wing eaters; the balance of sauce and breading at Harlem Express, particularly with the spicy and somewhat sweet house Phoenix sauce, is among the best around.
How fitting, considering that this space used to house the almost legendary Minj Grill.
The mac and cheese side pairs well with the wings, with heaps of cheese and butter that qualify it as comfort food.
“I like that you can really taste the butter in it,” Kacie said as we ate. “That’s the way my family makes it.”
High seats line the left wall of the rear portion of Harlem Bistro, a setup designed for grabbing drinks with a date or close friend. The exposed brick on the side walls echoes 1618 next door, as does the open front window with casual seating that connects diners to the city around them.
If anyone remembers Harlem Bistro up the street, this is run by the same guy, our server explained. And his dad owns the popular Boston’s House of Jazz near NC A&T University.
The short-lived bistro didn’t receive much hype, at least not in the circles either of us run in, but the new iteration deserves significant praise. Harlem Express receives high marks for food, presentation, atmosphere and service, not to mention location.
But even though the kitchen is ready for a rush, the small dining area down a hallway remained mostly empty a week in, while some people enjoyed the private yet scenic patio out back, patrons lined the bar in front and several tables conversed on the front sidewalk.
Don’t expect the lull to last.
Harlem Express, at 310 South Elm St. (GSO), is now open to the public.