Casa Latina is hailed as the heart of Spanish Harlem, also known to locals as “El Barrio” (meaning “the neighborhood”). Vicente Barreiro, a Spanish immigrant, founded the shop alongside his wife, Christina, in the 1960s, when the area was predominantly Puerto Rican. It specializes in records and musical instruments — particularly percussion instruments like congas, bongos, and cowbells. According to local lore, “If you don't find it in Casa Latina, you don't find it anywhere.”
Vicente fondly recalls how the atmosphere was “electric” back in the day, rife with music and dancing. It was a hotspot for musical legends, from Tito Puente — “the king,” in Vicente’s eyes — to Celiz Cruz. “It’s hard to say a name that hasn’t been in this store.” Although other immigrants from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and China have now entered the neighborhood, Casa Latina remains a community staple and fuels the original Puerto Rican spirit.
My first encounter with Amy Ruth's, a Southern style restaurant in the finest tradition, was during a walk while documenting every place on 116th. The street is enormous, with many delis, convenience stores, hair salons and barber shops, but tucked between these are some marvelous hidden gems. Amy Ruth's is certainly one of them, although, "hidden" is debatable given that the restaurant usually has a line out the door. Once inside, I discovered that the space is endless. There are some smaller nooks, an upstairs area that is open on the weekends, and then a large catering hall for private events. The second time I visited Amy Ruth's, late on a Saturday morning, I brought my husband and friends, as I needed them to enjoy the same experience that I'd had. I loved every aspect of this restaurant. From the star-shaped paper lanterns hanging on the ceiling to the murals portraying well known African American figures — including President Obama, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Serena and Venus Williams — to the variety of ages and cultures sitting at the tables, and, of course, to the excellent Southern cuisine, the restaurant offers a memorable dining spot for everyone. The opening of Amy Ruth's in 1998 was inspired by Carl Redding's time spent down south visiting his grandmother during the summer months. He chose to stand by her side day in and day out as she prepared meal after meal for her adoring family. Years later, he decided to pay tribute to this wonderful woman by opening up his own restaurant and naming it after his beloved grandmother. This warm family feeling is transmitted to guests as soon as they arrive. Waiting to enter, we began speaking with some of the patrons who were raving about the food. I learned that they queue up almost every weekend for the chicken and waffles — and every other waffle combination imaginable. Needless to say, our meal also consisted primarily of waffles, most of us opting for the variety of fruit toppings, and it was perfect.
Crepe Master opened in November 2017. After a trip to Japan, owner Fumi wanted to bring the uniqueness of the country's crepes to Harlem. Unlike French crepes, the Japanese version is traditionally served in a cone — and a classic street food dish in populous cities throughout the country. Top recommendations include Chocobana, a sweet crepe comprised of banana, crushed chocolates, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, custard cream and almonds, the Suzette, a simple butter, sugar, lemon crepe, or any savory crepe with tofu.
Sojourner Coffee, located on W 116th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr and Frederick Douglass Boulevards in Harlem, is more than just a place to grab a fresh brew; it's a tale of a community coming together and a couple turning dreams into reality. When the previous coffee shop, Shuteye, closed its doors in September 2020, the neighborhood lost a cherished gathering spot. Locals Madison Ritter and James Miller live at 112th St and Frederick Douglass Boulevard and were regulars at Shuteye. Madison, a bartender, and James, a barista since 2008, felt the loss and saw an opportunity where others saw an end. The couple decided to use their savings — initially intended for an apartment — to invest in the community they loved and bring the coffee shop back to life. It wasn't just a business opportunity for them, but a way to fill a void that had been left by the pandemic. "It's been great. We love the neighborhood, we love our community. We have really wonderful regulars. One of 'em over there, Kendall's, one of our favorites, " Madison laughed with one of her mainstay customers. The team have got involved with local artists. When we were at the store, they were displaying the work of Emo Kiddo — and plan to continue with regular exhibitions. Barista Jacob Scherer said: "We've all got a bit of art in our background, so we feel it's important to use the space to contribute to that a little. "And what about the name? "A sojourner is a person who’s on a path, and they're taking a break on their journey, " said Madison.